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.


New thinking about the Red Guards

Andrew Walder has spent almost all of his academic life, on and off, studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  In Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (2009) he offers some genuinely new insights into this crucial and chaotic period of China’s revolutionary history.  Some historians have focused on the political motivations of Mao and other top leaders in the party; others have examined the economic and social cleavages that existed in China only a decade and a half into its Communist Revolution.  Walder is interested in a much more grass-roots question: what were the motivations, calculations, and states of mind of the “foot soldiers” of the CR, the Red Guards in the earliest years of the upheavals?  And why did the political activism of the CR devolve almost inevitably into intense factionalism between groups whose ideologies seemed virtually indistinguishable — loyalty to Mao, defense of the revolution, attacks on treacherous leaders?  Walder is a political sociologist, and he wants to understand the dynamics of mobilization and affiliation that led to the group violence and inter-group factionalism in the early years of this period.

Here is an example of the kind of factionalism that most interests Walder:

Chapter 8 examines the puzzling disintegration of the rebel movement in January 1967, soon after the decisive victory over its opponents.  Why did the victorious rebel coalition rapidly split into two opposing camps?  In their earlier attacks on ministries and commissions, rebels stayed within separate bureaucratic hierarchies.  Work teams were dispatched down these hierarchies to the schools under them, and the pursuit of work teams led rebels directly back up this hierarchy to the ministry or commission that sent them.  When these rebels moved to seize power in national and municipal agencies, however, they crossed into different bureaucratic hierarchies.  Rebel groups from different schools who went to the same organs of power turned quickly from allies into competitors.  These competitive rivalries were exacerbated by deep splits that had earlier developed among rebel forces in the two largest and most important campuses, Beijing and Quinghua universities.  The splits at Beida and Qinghua served as a wedge to divide rebel forces citywide, as factions of different schools aligned themselves with one or another faction at these two large campuses.  The resulting split between “Heaven” and “Earth” factions crippled the student movement and frustrated the CCRG until the very end. (26-27)

Walder suggests that earlier scholars have sought to understand the motivations and factions of China’s young people in terms of the class position of the participants and the pervasive political indoctrination of youth that had been ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s.  Factions existed, according to this line of thought, either because different groups had different interests, or they had different political theories and ideologies (“conservative” and “radical”).  Walder finds these explanations unsatisfactory, since they apply equally to both sides in all the factions — and so he wants to identify some other feature of the political landscape that would explain the behavior and the factionalization.  And, unlike the scholars of the 1970s and 1980s who had to largely speculate about these issues, Walder takes advantage of primary sources that allow the researcher to get a great deal of information about the participants in their own words, and in their relationships to other activists.

Walder also questions the relevance of the core assumptions of social mobilization theory for the Cultural Revolution — the idea that social movements need to be understood in terms of grievances, resources, and the state’s ability to resist group demands.  Fundamentally his objection is that this theory doesn’t help to explain the early months of the Cultural Revolution because all the postulated conditions were present in 1966, and mobilization did in fact occur (14).  But it occurred in a very distinctive way that resource mobilization theory seems not to prove a basis for explaining — the constant fissioning of a group of activists into two or more factions, bitterly opposed to each other.  It appears, then, that resource mobilization theory lacks the tools necessary to explain this specific pattern of mobilization — radicalization followed by bitter factionalism.

Walder’s explanation is a novel one.  He argues that factionalization was a consequence, not of class differences or ideological disagreements between individuals, but simply of the early choices that various individuals made early in the period.  A central feature of this period was the fact of denunciation — denouncing past or current leaders for disloyalty to the revolution or other ideological errors.  And these denunciations within the universities were highly consequential: “by mid-July 55 percent of all university party first secretaries and 40 percent of all general branch secretaries had been labeled anti-party reactionaries and placed in category 4” (57).  The rapid proliferation of denunciations meant that persons close to the denounced leader needed to decide — should they join the denunciation or should they refrain?  The work teams that were sent into Beijing’s elite universities in June 1966 (Peking University, to begin with) were forced to make choices in light of radical students’ denunciation of top university officials; lower officials had to make similar choices; and activist student leaders had to decide whether to support or oppose the activities of the work teams.  And, Walder argues, this choice was fateful and enduring.  It meant that the individual would be shunted into this group or that group, with further decisions cementing the affinity with the group.

Another way of stating the argument is that factional identities and the common interests that define them are the product of political interactions rooted in specific contexts whose properties must be researched, not simply assumed.  Individual decisions — to join factions, to oppose or support a work team — are not the product of prior socialization or social ties but are actdively shaped by political encounters.  The focus is on the interactions that generate choices and outcomes, not the prior statuses of individuals or their preexisting social and political ties. These processes determine when prior social statuses or network ties are activated in a conflict, and when they are not. (13)

In other words, Walder argues that the fact of pervasive factionalization in the Cultural Revolution does not reflect fundamental underlying disagreements or contradictions between the factions; it does not reflect prior sociological distinctions among the participants; but rather reflects the emergence of separate networks of political affiliation from which there was no exit.

Chapter 3 describes how the work teams split university power structures into warring factions, with a focus on the issues that bred conflict between work teams and militant students.  Only in rare and fleeting circumstances were the issues of contention about attacks on the incumbent power structure — a question that might distinguish “conservative” from “radical” political orientations.  Instead, they were usually about the work team’s authority over student actions and the physical control of officials held for interrogation, and about heavy-handed work-team punishment of students who proved hard to control. (24)

This is a fascinating micro-sociology of a crucial span of a few months of violent upheaval in a single city.  It helps to explain a particularly pervasive feature of a broad and chaotic period of political unrest in China — the constant factionalism that occurred at virtually every level of conflict.  It introduces an innovative model of political behavior (path-dependent choices by individuals leading to a durable configuration of political affiliations).  And it provides a new avenue through which the methods of network analysis can be fruitfully used to explain complex social processes.  It is a valuable contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is currently underway about the Cultural Revolution.  (Other contributions to this new scholarship are included in Esherick, Pickowitz, and Walder, eds., China’s Cultural Revolution As History.)

A side note, not crucial to Walder’s argument but interesting nonetheless, is the apparently simple question of when the Cultural Revolution took place.  It is conventional by many historians to date the CR to the years 1966-1976.  In 1966 the Red Guard movement erupted with wall posters and virulent activism in Beijing, among high school and university students.  And in 1976 Mao died, the Gang of Four were arrested, and the disruptions of the decade were decisively put aside.  But Walder dates the CR to a much shorter period, 1966-68, beginning with the same Red Guard explosion that occurred in 1966 but ending in 1968 when Mao unleased the military to put down the radical activists: “Not until August 1968 were the flames of China’s Cultural revolution extinguished by the imposition of a harsh regime of martial law” (1).

Steve Pincus on revolution

Steve Pincus offers a sweeping and compelling reinterpretation of the English Revolution in 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Along the way he provides a review of existing theories of revolution — Skocpol, Huntington, Barrington Moore, and Goldstone, in particular (chapter 2). Pincus’s definition of revolution goes along these lines:

Revolutions thus constitute a structural and ideological break from the previous regime. They entail changes to both the political and socioeconomic structures of a polity. They involve an often violent popular movement to overturn the previous regime. Revolutions change the political leadership and the policy orientations of the state. And revolutionary regimes bring with them a new conception of time, a notion that they are beginning a new epoch in the history of the state and its society. (kindle loc 549)

Pincus criticizes each of the prevailing theories of revolution. Fundamentally Pincus’s criticism is that these theories share a common error of conceptualization: they work on the assumption that revolutions are the outcome of a conflict between a rigid, conservative, and exhausted state, on the one hand, and a movement of modernizers, on the other. Tocqueville embodies this assumption in his own history of the French Revolution — the defenders of the Ancien regime are defeated by economic and social reformers (Ancien Regime and the French Revolution). But Pincus argues that the historical reality was quite different, in France, Russia, China, the Ottoman Empire, and England.

In all cases the old regime had ceased to exist before the revolution. Revolutions, then, do not pit modernizing elements against defenders of the traditional order. Instead revolutions occur only after the regime in power has set itself on a modernizing course. State modernization itself cannot occur without prior socioeconomic modernization. But that socioeconomic modernization is a necessary though not a sufficient cause of state modernization. It is for that reason that revolutions are the often-violent working out of competing state modernization programs. (kindle loc 613)

So it is fissures and catalysts created by the state’s own processes of modernization that create the impetus towards revolution, according to Pincus. But what is modernization? Here is Pincus’s brief account:

By state modernization I mean a self-conscious effort by the regime to transform itself in fundamental ways. State modernization will usually include an effort to centralize and bureaucratize political authority, an initiative to transform the military using the most up-to-date techniques, a program to accelerate economic growth and shape the contours of society using the tools of the state, and the deployment of techniques allowing the state to gather information about and potentially supporess social and political activities taking place in a wide range of social levels and geographical locales within the polity. (kindle loc 613)

But not all modernizing states result in revolution; so what factors make revolution more likely? Pincus mentions Sweden, Denmark, and Meiji Japan as historical examples of societies with modernizing states and no revolution. Pincus thinks the answer lies in the degree to which the modernizing state is able to keep credible control of the apparatus of social order.

Revolutions are more likely in situations in which the modernizing regime is not clearly perceived to have a monopoly of the forces of violence…. When the modernizing state quickly demonstrates its control of resources and disarms the opposition, as in seventeenth-century Denmark and Sweden or late-nineteenth-century Japan, revolutions do not occur. (kindle loc 699)

So the causal narrative the Pincus offers goes along something like these lines:

  • The state initiates a process of reform and modernization.
  • There are multiple visions of what “modernization” ought to look like for the polity, both within the state and outside the state.
  • These multiple visions have the capacity to create advocates and processes of collective mobilization outside the state within civil society.
  • One or more parties in civil society gain the intention and the resources to challenge the state.
  • The state marshalls its forces to repress opposition.
  • If it lacks sufficient capacity to intimidate or repress opposition, revolution occurs.

What this narrative discounts is quite a bit of what other theories of revolution place in the foreground — under-class revolt, state breakdown, demographic change, ideological conflict, the disruptive social effects of war, and fiscal crisis, to name several. Pincus is too good a historian to truly overlook these factors, and they all come into his narrative of the English Revolution. But when it comes to offering a “theory” of revolution, Pincus is led down the same rhetorical path as the authors he criticizes: he wants to identify a single factor that “explains” the occurrence of revolution. Within the viewpoint of that single factor, he is willing to interweave the “secondary” factors mentioned here; but there is an intellectual desire to identify a single, most-important factor. And this seems misguided.

Better is the approach taken by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. Fundamentally, they reject the impulse towards any kind of single-factor theory of revolution or any other kind of contentious politics. They argue that these large social outcomes are the result of the concatenation of a diverse range of social mechanisms and processes, none of which is paramount.

To call the events of 1789 “contentious politics” may seem to demean a great revolution. This book aims to demonstrate that the label “contentious politics” not only makes sense but also helps explain what happened in Paris and the rest of France during that turbulent summer. … Further [the book] shows how different forms of contention — social movements, revolutions, strike waves, nationalism, democratization, and more — result from similar mechanisms and processes. It wagers that we can learn more about all of them by comparing their dynamics than by looking at each on its own. Finally, it explores several combinations of mechanisms and processes with the aim of discovering recurring causal sequences of contentious politics. (4)

Revolution is an instance of what McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly call “transgressive contention” (7), but there are important examples of transgressive contention that are not revolutionary — for example, the American civil rights struggle, cycles of protest in Italian cities, the Mau Mau rebellion, and other examples.

So Dynamics of Contention offer a serious methodological alternative to all of the theories of revolution mentioned here: rather than looking for a small number of structural characteristics that “cause” or “inhibit” revolution, we are better served by moving down to the meso- and micro-levels of mobilization, claim-making, repression, state building, tax collecting, and ideological competition that constitute the real causal stuff of revolution and contention.

It is worth observing, further, that the Dynamics of Contention approach — identifying discrete mechanisms and processes of contentious politics — offers vastly better resources for investigating and explaining the wave of revolts, uprisings, and popular movements that are taking place today across the Middle East than any single theory of revolution would provide.  The processes of grievance-making, group mobilization, communication, escalation, brokerage, and state tactics of repression that MTT describe are of obvious relevance in trying to understand the last few months of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and other countries. In particular, none of the macro-theories — class conflict, state breakdown, or crises of the modernizing state — seem to shed much light on these events.  What is occurring seems to be much more akin to the path-dependent, multi-causal kind of process that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly describe.

(McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly have been discussed several times here, including linklink.)

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