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“Moscow and Chinese Communists,” A Review

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 represented the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Kuomintang in the struggle for power in and control over China and culminated decades of civil war and revolutionary intrigue. Western scholarship on the Chinese Revolution has paid particular focus to the leading actors and key events within the Chinese Communist Party during the crucial years between its founding in 1921 and its ultimate ascendency in 1949. So, too, does the contemporary Chinese revolutionary narrative pay reverence to the mythos of Mao, the “Long March,” and the triumph of the Chinese communists against seemingly impossible odds. Yet lost in this narrative is the reality that no revolution exists in a vacuum; indeed,  external actors, events, and circumstances have the potential to fundamentally shape the characteristics of a revolutionary moment along with the character, organization, strategy, and tactics of a revolutionary movement. Such is particularly the case for revolutions framed around Marxist ideology, which is global and transnational in both theory and practice.

In Moscow and Chinese Communists, Robert North explores the external actors and events which came to dramatically shape the origins and character of China’s Communist Party and revolution by detailing the intricate linkages between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. The book progresses through a tracing of the history of Soviet influence on China’s communist party, beginning with the origins of Communist thought in China, the formation of the CCP, and the Kuomintang-Communist alliance, through the Kuomintang-Communist split, Mao’s ascendancy to power, the experiment of the Kiangsi Soviet, and the Sino-Japanese war. Throughout this progression, North breaks from the conventional analysis of the Chinese Revolution as a product of Maoist theory, strategy, and practice, proposing instead that the Soviet Union’s strategy for international communist revolution, along with the individual characters of Soviet leaders, the dynamics of Soviet politics, and the prejudices and perceptions of the advisors sent by the Soviet Union to advise the CCP, shaped the ultimate direction the Chinese revolution would take.

North particularly emphasizes the fluidity and pragmatism of Leninist and Bolshevik revolutionary strategy, directed by the Soviet Union through the Comintern, in the context of the Chinese Revolution, along with the impact they had. The main recurring point in this analysis explains Soviet support for the Kuomintang, which set in motion the circumstance which would eventually lead to an independent, and ultimately victorious, Chinese Communist Party, as a method to influence key political actors in China and undermine anti-revolutionary currents; supporting the Kuomintang was, as North puts it, a supposed “Trojan horse for gaining control of China” for Bolshevik leaders (pg. 66). Crucial to this is North’s other key point, that political events and actors outside of China ultimately played the key role in determining the strategy and direction the CCP would take. He details how the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for leadership in the Soviet Union manifested itself in China’s revolution, with Stalin’s push for CCP-Kuomintang cooperation, developed to oppose Trotsky’s calls for an autonomous communist movement in China, emerging triumphant with Stalin’s consolidation of power. This point plays into North’s broader conclusion, that the strategies imposed by the Soviet Union on China’s communists were borne not only, and perhaps not even so much, out of a desire to see Communism in China, but as “weapons in personal drives for power” (pg. 30). The challenge of democratic centralism and the dictatorial Leninist system for global Marxist revolution, then, is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through North’s claims that Stalin’s carefully laid plains, and the manifesting Bolshevik influence on the CCP, “had precipitated nothing but near-disaster for the Chinese Communists” through successive failures, setbacks, and deceits (pg. 97).

The analysis North provides of the Chinese Communist Party, and the influence had on it by the Soviet Union, puts into global perspective the narrative told about the Chinese Revolution, one which often overlooks or undervalues such key linkages. His detailing of the personalities, prejudices, and perceptions of the numerous actors who took part in the connections between the Soviet Union and the CCP reveals political action and intrigue far broader and more complex than what is usually given by simply analyzing Mao and his key lieutenants. Indeed, for this, North’s book sheds much needed light and insight into the formation and character of the Chinese Communist Party, insight which is lost when credence isn’t paid to the multitude of individuals who helped shape its direction.

Regarding Mao as the sole face, character, and strategist of China’s Communists removes from consideration the significant roles played by others, especially Soviets, in defining Chinese communist strategy and organization. Similarly, regarding China’s Communist Revolution as an isolated, insular event neglects the global political and broader communist context in which it existed. Doing such provides an incomplete, and even incorrect, understanding of not only China’s revolution, but the contemporary characteristics of China’s Communist Party. North’s work represents an admirable attempt at combating such simplistic explanations.

Though North focuses his analysis on the Soviet Union’s influence on China’s communists, emergent from his work is an equally valid and intuitive critique of the strategies of Bolshevism and the role played by the Comintern in inciting global communist revolution. By demonstrating the role played by the Soviet Union in structuring, and sometimes dictating, the organization and revolutionary strategies of the CCP, he reveals how the Comintern was, far from being only a tool used to further the revolutionary current, a tool used to secure Soviet leadership and hegemony in the communist world. His critique of the pitfalls in the role played by the Soviet Union in the communist world, such as Stalin’s utilization of the Comintern and shaping of Bolshevik strategy for his furthering of personal power and the inefficiencies and challenges facing a centralized yet transnational communist organization, readily support the historical reality of the Comintern’s failure to develop a unified, cohesive communist bloc. His analysis can thus be used to effectively and insightfully analyze communist movements and their relations to the Soviet Union in countries other than China.

However, despite the attention North dedicates to the often overlooked actors crucial to China’s Communist Revolution and the insights gained from such, North neglects to spend focus on what are conventionally considered the key actors. He dedicates only a brief chapter to Mao’s life, rise, and influence on Chinese Communism. Focusing his attention on the Soviet influence on the characteristics of Chinese communism, he further fails to consider deeply the origins of, and significance of, Maoist thought and theory. By doing so, North commits an error equally dangerous to overlooking less significant actors in the CCP; without providing ample consideration of Mao or Maoism, North is unable to provide a rounded, complete analysis and understanding of the Chinese Communist Revolution and all the sources of influence which brought about its ultimate success. Attention could have been directed toward the influence of Bolshevism and Bolshevik theory on the formation of Maoist thought, or the interplay between the development of Maoism and the application of Leninist strategy in the context of the CCP’s strategy; North, however, does not attempt such an analysis, narrowing his focus instead largely on the application of Soviet practices in the CCP’s strategy.

Another issue, though one not necessarily emergent as a result of North’s work, is when his book was published; in 1963, the year of publishing, the Sino-Soviet split was only just beginning, and little access to documents detailing the intricacies of Soviet-CCP cooperation was available. Accordingly, North, as an American living in the height of the Cold War, laces his analysis with a detectable concern about the prospects of a Sino-Soviet bloc; indeed, he frames his analysis of international communist cooperation as enabling Western audiences to “perhaps be less inclined to behave precisely as the Bolshevik strategists and tacticians expect – and, for Communist purposes – want them to behave” (pg. 8). This prejudice undermines his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, which should otherwise be an objective analysis of a case study in political developments and international cooperation, by framing it as a global conspiracy rather than as a product of historical circumstances. As such, the reader is left wondering whether the characteristics and perceptions ascribed by North to the Soviet Union’s various advisers and China’s developing communist thinkers are indeed borne from reality, or if they have been construed to convey to the reader a fear of a growing and perhaps impending global communist victory. Meanwhile, without access to a breadth of documentation on the topic of his analysis, North falls short of providing a full and complete, and likely even substantial, understanding of the true depth of the cooperation between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. Further work is left to be done by other researchers and authors to expand and refine upon the analytical framework North has provided.

Robert North’s Moscow and Chinese Communists provides a reader with a fuller picture of the development of China’s Communist Party and the eventual Communist Revolution, one that would otherwise be impossible if focus was only paid to Mao and the elements of communist theory indigenous in China. Despite the issues raised by this review, he admirably sets forward to depict China’s Revolution as an event created by, and often directly influenced by, outside forces and outside actors. Developing a true understanding of the Chinese Revolution, or any revolution influenced by Marxist ideology, necessitates knowledge of the various international forces and actors in play and the influence they had. The reader will finish this book feeling more confident in that knowledge, and therefore have a more nuanced and rounded understanding of how and why the Chinese Communist Party took and used the character, organization, and strategies that came to define it.

Moscow and Chinese Communists. Robert C. North. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963. 310 pp.

Revolutionary Inspirations

Throughout history, revolutionaries have modeled their revolutions, designed their revolutionary and post-revolutionary strategies, and developed their ideological theories from revolutions of the past. The Russian communist revolutionaries looked to the what the French had done, the revolutionaries in China looked to the Russian revolution, and the Cuban revolutionaries looked to the Chinese. The Comintern was developed to help export and inspire more revolution, and Che Guevara drew lessons from the Cuban revolution in his attempt to start revolution across Latin America and Africa. In this way, each revolution has been inspired and triggered by another.

For the Russian revolutionaries, the French revolution was a source of inspiration. Many Russians in 1917 saw themselves reenacting the struggle in France after 1789, fighting against the oppressive rule of the tsar for the creation of an egalitarian state. Indeed, it was easy to equate a movement which had begun with an attack on the nobility with a revolution built around a theory of history which emphasized the class struggle. The communist revolutionaries saw in France the earliest example of when the masses entered politics for the pursuit of their own interests rather than as tools of more powerful manipulators; in this way, the Russian revolutionaries saw the French revolution as an inspiration for a popular, anti-elite revolution. It taught them that the old social and political order could be overthrown and emerge anew, and that the people could be as powerful a force in politics as the elite.

Yet more than looking to it for just inspiration, the Russian revolutionaries looked to the French revolution for revolutionary lessons. Lenin saw in the French revolution lessons on what was necessary for sparking and sustaining a successful revolution. Knowledgeable of what had occurred in 1789, he recognized the importance of having a ‘revolutionary moment’ to serve as the spark for the Russian revolution. He achieved it by ordering the warship Aurora to fire blank shells at the Winter Palace. The parallel with the French storming of the Bastille, and the subsequent revolutionary fervor that followed, is impossible to miss. He also recognized the importance of the armed forces, declaring it the first task of every revolution to gain their support.  As Bruce Mazlish points out in his piece on the French revolution in comparative perspective, “Lenin called the army the Key to the country. He was merely restating what Rivarol had said of the French Revolution.” Without the defection of the French Royal troops there would likely have been no French revolution, and Lenin knew that had the Petrograd troops fired on the uprising crowd the Russian revolution too would have likely failed. The lessons he garnered from the French experience at revolution therefore influenced how he directed his own.

The Comintern, an international communist organization, was initiated in Moscow in March 1919 and held seven Congress between 1919 and 1935. Lenin believed that unless socialist revolution swept Europe,  the young Soviet state would be crushed by the military might of world capitalism like how the Paris Commune had been destroyed by force of arms in 1871. The organization was thus designed to inspire and support socialist revolution around the world, and to achieve that end it sent financial and military assistance to other communist revolutions across the world. However, as an organization supported largely by the Soviets, the Comintern was mostly used as a means to expand Soviet influence and protect Soviet interests. After the implementation of Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’ policy the Comintern was dissolved, having failed to make much tangible difference in the outcome of socialist revolutions worldwide.

Similar to how the Russians drew inspiration from the French, the Chinese communist revolutions drew inspiration from the Russian revolution. They saw an appeal in Lenin’s theories about imperialism and how it related to capitalism and socialism, theories which offered the colonial and semi-colonial lands a crucial international revolutionary role. Lenin had concluded that revolutions would occur first in less developed, economically exploited societies and would involve not only the working class but also the participation of the peasantry. As these less developed lands went over to socialism, the capitalist nations would begin to follow. Revolution in China, at the time a less developed, economically exploited society like what Lenin had talked about, could thus play a major role in causing socialist revolutions in more advanced countries. Such a theory made the Chinese communists’ desire for revolution all the more important and pressing. According to the theory, China needed to toss off foreign imperialism and was given a role of significant importance in the global revolution. Such ideas resonated with the nationalist ideals held by many Chinese, who wanted to rid their land of foreign domination.

However, the Chinese also looked with some dismay at the Russian revolutionary model of development and Russian revolutionary strategy. The Chinese revolution was peasant-based and waged through guerilla warfare, a major departure from Lenin’s ‘vanguard’ party of intellectuals and the proletariat leading full-scale, face-on revolutionary warfare. Instead of focusing on heavy industry and economic bureaucratization like the Soviets had during their development in the 1920s and 1930s, the Chinese communists also decided to develop agriculture, light industry, and heavy industry simultaneously. This was signaled a departure from the ‘bureaucratic elite’ approach to decision making characteristic of the Soviet model, favoring a more mass-line approach instead. Thus, though the Chinese drew inspiration in Lenin’s theories about Marxism and the success of the Russian communist revolution, they did not reproduce the Soviet’s revolutionary strategies nor did they mirror their approaches to governance or economics. This demonstrates that revolutions can be inspired from the same ideological theories and one can inspire the other, but don’t always produce the same post-revolution results.

The Cuban revolutionaries drew inspiration and strategy from Mao’s communist revolution. The Cuban revolution was driven by an anti-imperialist nationalist outlook, mirroring the Russian revolution in its anti-capitalist goals and the Chinese revolution in its nationalism. Che Guevara, the main theoretician of the Cuban revolution, made use of Mao’s guerilla revolutionary strategy. He argued that “victory by the popular forces in Latin America is clearly possible in the form of guerrilla warfare undertaken by a peasant army in alliance with the workers.” The Cuban revolutionaries based themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountain range, staging ambushes and relying upon peasant support for information, supplies, and assistance. Promises of land reform, schools, and healthcare encouraged more peasants to join the rebel forces, just as how the good conduct of Mao’s forces and his reform policies bred goodwill from Chinese peasants. Help from friendly peasants and reinforcements from the local rural population grew the size of Cuban rebellion, while the rebel guerilla strategy demoralized Batista’s army. This strategy is what enabled Mao’s revolutionary forces to overcome numerically superior opponents, and when employed by Castro and Guevara’s forces it also proved successful. Using this strategy, Castro’s force went from being composed of only a few dozen fighters  in 1956 to securing revolutionary victory in 1959. That Mao’s revolutionary strategies enabled the Cuban revolutionary victory can easily been seen.

The successful Cuban revolution inspired Guevara to attempt to export revolution to other places across the world, thereby triggering further revolution. He saw the conditions that existed in Cuba prior to the revolution, those of imperialism and social injustice, existing in societies across Latin America and, additionally, Africa. As the Cuban revolution had successfully shaken off those conditions, he believed that the rest of Latin America and Africa could do the same. The success of the Cuban revolution thus served as inspiration for his aspirations for a greater, global revolution. Guevara also argued that an armed revolutionary band of as few as thirty to fifty combatants could, through violent attacks on a state’s instruments of repression, create the necessary conditions for a successful revolution. The actions of the guerilla fighters would gain the otherwise apathetic peoples’ attentions and make them realize that their rulers are not all-powerful, thereby spreading the concept of revolution. Popular support would therefore constitute the necessary condition for a revolutionary victory. This was the same strategy which the Cuban revolutionaries had successfully used. Thus, he hoped to employ the strategies used in the Cuban revolution, and before that the Chinese revolution, as well as using the Cuban revolution as inspiration. In turn, he hoped to inspire other revolutionaries to take up the cause and provided them the strategies necessary to do so.

It is clear that these revolutions were inspired and triggered by one another. Russian’s revolutionaries were inspired by the French revolution, and saw themselves fighting the same struggle the French had in 1789. The Comintern was established to inspire and support socialist revolution worldwide. The Chinese found reason for revolution in the theories produced by the Russian revolutionaries, though they broke from the Russian revolutionary strategy and post-revolutionary model development, and the Cuban revolutionaries succeeded by using of Mao’s strategy of revolutionary guerilla warfare. The Cuban revolutionaries success provided Che Guevara with the strategies and inspiration needed to wage revolutionary warfare across Latin America and Africa, and he hoped to inspire further revolutionaries with them. Revolutions thus serve as sources of inspiration for other revolutionaries looking to change their own social and political order. They provide valuable lessons for other revolutionaries on how to wage and win revolution. The theories developed during revolution can serve as the basis for revolutions elsewhere. In these ways, revolutions trigger other revolutions.

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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