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Month: October 2013

Introspection # 30: “Thoughts on Political Science”

As a student majoring in political science, I find myself less constrained than my peers in what I can consider a part of my discipline. Political science can be seen as structured in a manner ‘opposite’ of the ‘hard sciences’, such as biology and chemistry, where singular focus is placed on a specific aspect of the function of our universe. In those fields, studying the discipline eventually leads to an expanded understanding of the universe… but only when combined with the knowledge of the other ‘hard sciences.’ The physicist, the chemist, and the biologist see different forces in play when looking at the same thing; it is not until they combine their knowledge that it can be understood in its totality. Political science, on the other hand, explains the whole ‘universe’ of human political activity, and to do so aggregates and studies other fields which contribute to its function. The political scientist does not place singular focus on a specific function within the political ‘universe’, but must rather broadly understand all of the forces in play. What, then, constitutes ‘political science?’ What must be studied in order to understand the universe of human political thought and action?

Perhaps the two fields most integral to political science are philosophy and history. These two fields explain how and why modern political thought arose, what those thoughts mean, and how the political world of today came into existence. Philosophy serves as the entire foundation to political thought; indeed, political thought is itself philosophy. All political ideas and ideologies are answers provided to the questions of how we should organize ourselves, how we should conduct ourselves politically, and why. Yet more than just that, philosophy also seeks to answer how humans should ideally conduct themselves, directly influencing political behaviors and ideas. Politics is nothing but interacting human behaviors, and thus even philosophies outside the realm of political thought influence political behavior dramatically. Having a firm footing in philosophical thought is therefore necessary for understanding the intellectual tenets behind the political systems and ideas which exist today. History, meanwhile, explains how these philosophical ideas became tangible behaviors, what those behaviors were, and how they created the political systems of today. Understanding history therefore enables us to understand how the systems we study today came into being, how they previously functioned, and what came before them. This knowledge of political evolution shows us where we came from, and where we may be heading. History also provides political scientists with the empirical data necessary to create and verify theories about how humans behave politically. Without understanding history, we would have no context to understand the political universe as it presently exists. We would be unable to recognize patterns of political behavior, and thus would be unable to create theories to explain them. A study of history is as vital as a study of philosophy.

Yet political science, outside of ideas and systems, explains human behaviors, perceptions, and norms. Again, politics is nothing but human interaction. As such, it is equally important to understand behavior-focused fields such as sociology and psychology. Sociology explains the function of human society – its structure, norms, taboos, and culture. These all influence that society’s political culture, which in turn directly influences how that society operates politically. Without understanding a region’s politics through the eyes of someone living in that region’s society, explaining human political behavior will be a futile effort. After all, culture, and thus thought and behavior, is all relative; the politics of one culture may be diametrically opposed to the politics of another. Equally important is understanding psychology – how and why humans think the things they do and behave as they do. Every human is a political agent, contributing energy to political activity through our behaviors. The way we contribute that energy is a result of our personal ideas and thoughts, products of our brain’s functioning. Psychology, the study this functioning, is thus incredibly important to explaining the individual human’s thought processes and, in turn, political thinking. Additionally, it helps unlock the secrets of how and why humans naturally behave the way they do. Our tendency for social interaction, our territoriality, our hierarchical power dynamics, and other characteristics of our psychological character all manifest themselves in some way in our politics. Applying physiological understandings to political science thus enables us to explain much about political behavior and our political reality.

There are a plethora of other fields the political scientist must devote energy to studying in order to more properly understand the political universe. Geography impacts the strategic importance of various states and also the culture of the people living within them; it therefore should be studied so that regional and global political issues and interactions can better be put into context. Religion is a powerful motivator of behavior and thought, and in turn a powerful motivator of political action. Some states, such as Iran, are even built around religion, and religion has in the past served as a justification for many political realities (such as the ‘Divine Right ‘of the European monarchs) and behaviors. Of course, religion is a field of philosophy, but is such an extensive sub-field that it could and, for the purposes of understanding our quite religious world, should be given the time and energy to be studied as its own distinct entity. Indeed, even studying fields such as technology and advancing science has importance for the political scientist, as they help explain the changing ways humans interact with each other and thus change the realm of politics.

What, then, is political science? It is a collection of knowledge from various fields and disciplines which, when combined, explains human political behaviors. Political science cannot operate alone; it is entirely the sum of its parts. When there is a deficit of knowledge in any one of these fields, the entire discipline of political science suffers. After all, political science studies human behaviors, and humans are complicated creatures. They think and behave in complicated ways. The study of those behaviors transcends disciplines and draws from the knowledge produced by a vast array of fields. In order to accurately explain how the human will behave politically, the political scientist must accumulate and understand all of these fields. It is a daunting task, but it opens up the discipline to a vast amount of possible theories, possible approaches, and limits constraints. The political scientist will never have to worry about not having enough to study.

Mao’s Peasant Revolution

China’s peasantry played a vital role in Mao’s communist revolution. They helped his communist forces defeat Chaing Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang, for without the support and assistance of the peasants Mao’s communist forces would have been unable to defeat the numerically and technologically superior Japanese and Kuomintang armies. Recognizing this, Mao based the revolution around the peasantry.  Indeed, they formed a key part of Mao’s theoretical approach to Marxism. A number factors, such as the conduct of the communists and the Kuomintang in governance and war and the way Mao structured his revolution to be intimately connect with the peasantry, are what enabled the ultimate victory of Mao’s peasant communist revolution.

Karl Marx believed that a communist revolution could only begin in an already-industrialized capitalist state. He predicted that this sort of society would create the political means and motivation for them to seize control of and redirect the resources of society towards benefiting the needs of the majority, as opposed to an elite minority (Defronzo 44).  This was because of how such a society mass-organized and alienated the masses. A peasant society, conversely, would not be receptive to revolutionary goals because of the peasantry’s ties to tradition, sense of powerlessness, and relative ignorance of the world beyond the village (Defronzo 112). Peasants would therefore be unable to develop class consciousness, and in turn would never engage in revolution to improve their plight.

Mao disagreed with Marx’s analysis of a peasant society, believing that it too could engage in and win a revolution. He recognized how Chinese peasants of the past had supported the revolutionary, untraditional ideologies espoused by the Taiping and Boxer rebellions. This contrasted with Marx’s belief that the peasants were a reactionary, traditionalist class. He was also aware of how the peasantry had engaged in rebellion against rulers who ‘lost’ the “Mandate of Heaven” and against imperialist powers. Mao equated the peasantry’s tradition for rebellion with class consciousness, and believed that the “Sinification of Marxism”, which fused that tradition with the ideology of Marxism, would enable a successful, peasant-based communist revolution to occur in China (Defronzo 120). Mao thus had supreme faith in the peasantry, seeing it not as a backwards reactionary class but rather as the class which would enable and carry out revolutionary change in China.

Theory aside, a number of factors contributed to the success of Mao’s peasant communist revolution. Especially important among these was the conduct of Mao’s communist fighters and Chaing Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang in governance and war. After Chaing’s 1927 massacre of communists in Shanghai and seizure of power, China was split between the two competing groups in a struggle for control. Initially forced into hiding and suffering from a number of military defeats throughout the civil war, the communists were easily able to secure victory in their revolution by 1949 (Defronzo 113). This was largely a result of their behavior, which garnered and reinforced public support, and the increasingly negative public perception of the Kuomintang.

Mao based his revolutionary strategy around the concept of the “people’s war”, in which the revolutionary effort was intimately connected with, relied upon, and was supported by widespread popular support. The slogan “the people are the water, the (revolutionary) army are the fish; without the water, the fish will die” exemplifies the tenets of such as a strategy (Defronzo 113). Through good words and deeds, such as exemplary conduct by soldiers and reforms aimed at helping the peasantry, the communists would gain the support and loyalty of the people. They would then help support and sustain the communist revolutionary war effort. While the peasants were perhaps unfamiliar with Marxist theory, they were supportive towards the good deeds and kind acts done by Mao’s forces, and this helped legitimize the communist cause. Building popular support through good deeds was such a successful strategy that it enabled Mao to turn his ‘Long March’, a 6,000 mile military retreat, into a major political victory. During the retreat, his forces would routinely assist, teach, and support the peasants they encountered, building widespread goodwill.

Another central element of Mao’s revolutionary strategy was politicizing his armed forces so that they would spread the ideals of the revolution to noncombatants. Mao believed that “the most important natural quality [of a soldier] is that of complete loyalty to the idea of people’s emancipation” (Baggins 2000). The revolutionary soldier was to motivated by the idea that they were fighting against the oppression of the landlords, imperialists, capitalists, and the creation of a morally just society (Defronzo 113). They were thus more inclined to commit the good deeds necessary to breed popular support and more committed to waging a determined struggle against a superior foe.

Guerilla warfare was the major military strategy employed by the communists, and was also intimately connected with popular peasant support. Mao believed that “because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation (Baggins 2000). Again, good deeds bred popular support, and popular support enabled the communists to overcome their disadvantage in numbers and armaments. Revolutionary forces were nourished, hidden, informed about enemy troop movements and dispositions, and in other ways aided by the people (Defronzo 113). Then, instead of engaging the Kuomintang and Japanese armies face on, the communists engaged in raids, swift military actions, and rapid retreats which slowly demoralized and defeated the enemy forces. Meanwhile, anti-revolutionary forces had to deal with not only the armed force of the revolutionary army, but also the hostility of large numbers of pro-communist noncombatants. This proved an effective strategy which allowed Mao’s forces to eventually secure their revolutionary victory over numerically superior forces.

While Mao was building widespread peasant support and legitimacy for his armed cause, the Kuomintang was conversely breeding peasant antipathy. While the communists engaged in land-reform and rent-control programs and reforms, which eased the suffering of the peasantry, the landlords under Kuomintang rule often increased rents and interest rates. Little was done to bring about a redistribution of wealth, and as a result inequalities and oppressive conditions continued, or even worsened, in Kuomintang controlled areas. Peasant discontent led many to join the communist revolutionary army, bolstering the numbers of Mao’s forces and further legitimizing his cause (Defronzo 116).

Economic conditions and poor governance alone did not breed antipathy towards the Kuomintang; army abuse by Kuomintang forces also alienated many peasants. Its officer corps was perceived as corrupt, and the common soldier in its army faced abuse and exploitation by their officers. Negative perceptions about Chaing and the Kuomintang had also formed. His regime was heavily influenced by foreign advisors, his wife was seen as more allegiant to U.S. culture than Chinese, and Chaing, as a Methodist Christian, was seen as trying to change fundamental Chinese cultural values. For a peasantry which had previously rebelled against imperialist powers and which was rooted in a nationalist outlook, Mao’s communists appeared more capable of establishing a truly and genuinely Chinese controlled national government. This served to reduce the appeal and legitimacy of the Kuomintang (Defronzo 115). Chaing’s army also saw much less success against the Japanese than the communist army and was often kept out of the fighting. As a result, many Chinese came to see the communist force as the ‘true army’ of China, and accordingly Mao’s army grew significantly in size(Defronzo 115).

Mao’s revolutionary strategy was designed around the peasants, and thus necessarily garnered their good will and support. The Kuomintang, meanwhile, alienated many peasants through the continuation of unjust and oppressive rule and perceptions of illegitimacy. As a result, in the final struggle for power following World War 2 between the communists and the Kuomintang, the communist forces were immensely strengthened and the Kuomintang was largely demoralized and weakened. The communist victory was easily obtained. The factors described above therefore enabled the ultimate success of Mao’s communist peasant revolution.

Works Cited:

Baggins, Brian, “On Guerilla Warfare”, Marxist Internet Archives, October 9 2013, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/1937/guerrilla-warfare/

Defronzo, James, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements Colorado: Westview Press, 2011

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