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.