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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.

The “Grid,” A Representation of Selfhood and Identity in D.J. Wadie’s “Holy Land”

In “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through an exploration of his environment, the suburb in which he was raised and has spent his life. A central focus of the narrative is on the “grid”, the layout and design of this suburban environment. Through his description of life in the suburb, defined by the limitations and possibilities imposed by the grid, Waldie reveals how environment directly shapes and defines identity. A theory on human nature, that identity develops from the circumstances of the environment it is exposed to, emerges from his narrative. Yet Waldie’s portrayal of the grid goes deeper than simply explaining how environmental circumstances mold identities. Rather than just a literal account of city planning, Waldie’s “grid” can be seen as a metaphor for the human life

Environments shape identities; the circumstances of where we live condition us to behave in specific ways and to accept certain norms and realities. A certain habitus develops among people living together in a specific place. This is decidedly true in the suburban experiment in which Waldie lived. For the thousands of young war veterans moving into suburb, the grid offered the possibility for finding and defining a unique identity. Indeed, as Waldie writes, the suburb (and the grid it was built in) was “a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4), allowing a generation coming of age to develop a new idea of self. The style of living in the suburb offered was novel and untested, and thus the habitus which would emerge was unlike any developed before. The grid presented an opportunity for a community to discover itself and develop habits, while the repetitive nature of the grid, the order that it established, made these habits into norms. It was impossible to escape from the social conventions of the suburb, which were manifest from its design. Waldie reveals this by writing that “he thought he was becoming his habits, or – even more- he thought he was becoming the grid he knew” (Waldie 1). Waldie is theorizing on human nature and our conception of selfhood, arguing that we develop identities and norms based on where we live. The habitus of the suburb, the norms and conventions developed by the young generation purchasing and living in the newly built houses, the redefinition of selfhood in a claustrophobic and ordered style of living– these all became elements of Waldie’s identity. He was shaped by them by participating in them, and his conception of selfhood revolved around them. Yet these all are products of the grid, the design of the suburb, and thus Waldie can argue that by becoming his habits he was “becoming the grid he knew”.

The grid, while capable of liberating possibilities, also limited them. The grid was an environment of monotony and similarity, where lives were spent in close proximity and intersected constantly. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the people living within it would retreat into their own houses, finding and developing their own unique identities there. Waldie writes that “it is as if each house on your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide by one hundred feet long. People come and go from it…. But the island is remote” (Waldie 13). The monotonous and claustrophobic design of the suburb allows for little exploration and expression of unique identity outside of the home, yet inside each “enchanted island” the individual could separately and “remotely” discover themselves. Waldie is commenting on another aspect of human nature and identity-seeking, the fact that we often retreat into ourselves or our sanctuaries in order to explore and define our identity. In an environment of monotony and similarity, it is difficult to differentiate between selfhood and otherness, between what makes us unique against others. This must be especially true in Waldie’s suburb, where the monotony imposed by the grid and the racial and religious restrictions imposed by the city left little in the way of differences among people. We can only recognize our selfhood and embrace our unique identity by removing ourselves from that monotony and trying not to recognize it. Waldie’s environment, that of the grid, then shaped the way people approached their identities and their recognition of selfhood. It limited the discovery of selfhood, forcing it to take place away from the monotonous similarity of outside and instead in the dynamics of the family and the home.

Waldie’s focus on the grid goes deeper than a literal description of environment and a theory of human nature built around it. He writes, “The grid is the plan above the Earth. It is a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4). Waldie’s description of the grid as a canvass of potential is allegorical of the human condition. Until it is designed and constructed, the grid can be developed into anything. Indeed, Waldie writes that “every map is a fiction. Every map offers choices” (Waldie 47). There is no inherent form which the suburb must take. This is equally true for the human life and its associated identity. There is no inherent human condition or identity; we are all canvasses of potential, compasses of possibilities. The “grid” of our life, the layout and design of our identity and selfhood, is developed overtop our human form like the grid of the suburb is designed overtop the ground. Waldie’s theory on human nature, when seen through a non-literal reading of his grid, is that every human is a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, and identity can be developed in any shape or form just as the design of the grid presents limitless possibilities.

Yet Waldie spends considerable time in his memoir describing the development and evolution of the grid, how the land it sits upon changed owners numerous times and how different designs had been produced. He writes “the streets in my city are a fraction of a larger grid, anchored to one in Los Angeles… the Los Angeles grid is a copy of one carried from Mexico City to an anonymous stretch of river bank…. That grid originally came from a book in the Archive of the Indies in Seville…. That grid came from God” (Waldie 22). Though the grid is “a compass of possibilities,” it is nonetheless one whose design had been influenced by outside forces, such as the pressures of a design requirement or the history of the ground beneath it, before it was even built. So too are the identities we develop influenced by external forces even prior to the development of the identity itself. Our family history, like the history of the ground beneath the grid, determines who and what we will become, in turn shaping our conception of selfhood. The design of a larger grid system, such as the one which Waldie’s suburb existed in, is similar to the larger social and cultural framework into which we are born and which defines the fundamentals of how we define our identity and conceptualize ourselves.

The grid of Waldie’s suburb remained unchanging; the basic layout of the neighborhood remained static. Yet the elements within that grid were in constant development and change, and Waldie relates that change in his memoir. Buildings were developed, built, and then brought down. Trees were planted and replanted. People moved in and out of houses. Again, seen as a metaphor for the human life, the nature of the grid is revelatory of Waldie’s conception of the nature of selfhood. Humans possess a deep and fundamental identity, our “grid”. The framework of this identity, like the fundamental layout of the grid, remains largely unchanging through time. Yet elements of our identity are in constant flux and are constantly being redefined, just as the suburb built upon the grid is always changing. Selfhood is not static, but rather constantly being developed. Waldie’s exploration of the development and changes in his grid is revelatory of that.

Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through focusing on the “grid” of his suburb, the design layout which shaped the identities of the people who lived there. The grid presented both a possibility for the development of new identities and rediscovery of selfhood by offering a completely new style of living, and also limited the exploration of unique identity in its monotony and similarity. Waldie explores this through his description of his suburb and its development. Yet the grid can be seen as more than just a literal suburb layout; it serves as a metaphor for human nature. Like the possibilities of the grid, the possibilities of our lives and our identities are limitless; yet like the grid, our identities and conceptions of selfhood are shaped by externalities outside of our control.

A Critique of Klaus Bringmann’s A History of the Roman Republic

In A History of the Roman Republic, Klaus Bringmann discusses in detail the characteristics of and changes in Roman politics and imperialism over the Republican era. His book therefore provides a complex and broad historical analysis of the nature of Roman politics and the Roman military system. However, a shortcoming of Bringmann’s book is the sparse attention given to analyzing all aspects of Roman society and culture and their development through the Republican era. While Bringmann does preface his book stipulating that it is an “account of the political history of the Republic,” he acknowledges that “the economic and social fields and… the phenomena of religion, acculturation, and mentalities” (Bringmann viii) must be taken into consideration. He does devote some energy to discussing them, but does so in a political context; his uses his descriptions of Roman culture, for example, to explain larger political circumstances but not to provide a deep understanding of Roman society itself. As a result, I would argue that Bringmann’s analysis is not comprehensive enough to provide the broad and multifaceted understanding of the Roman state that “a history of the Roman Republic” would entail.

I have noticed that authors of historical narratives and analyses, particularly those of the classical era, focus their energy primarily on the political activities of elite classes and the particulars of military campaigns. As a result, they frequently neglect the lives, struggles, and characteristics of the common people. By only studying the elites of a society or the particulars of their warfare, a woefully inadequate picture of that society is presented. A historian studying the United States, for example, would not come close to describing the history and historical character of America by only focusing on its wars and Congress. The common people of Ancient Rome, regardless of how much influence they had on the historical process, were nonetheless a major part of history. Any true understanding of Rome’s history necessitates a deep knowledge of Roman culture and society, both that of the elites and the masses, which Bringmann’s book falls far short of providing.

The majority of Bringmann’s book details the development of Roman politics and Rome’s growing empire, and in this analysis his writing shines. However, only three chapters specifically focus on issues in Roman society and culture.  Specifically, Bri*ngmann discusses the Hellenization of Roman culture in the 2nd century BCE, the development of a monetary economy and its impacts, and the late-2nd century agrarian crisis. These chapters make up merely 33 of the book’s 321 pages, hardly significant compared to the breadth of analysis Bringmann devotes to Roman politics and conquests.

In his discussion of the Hellenization of Roman culture, Bringmann does discuss in some depth the character of Roman art, theater, and religion after contact with the Hellenic world. Yet this discussion makes up only a small part of this chapter, which focuses more prominently on the political consequences of Hellenization and the subsequent political struggles between the Hellenized elements of the Roman elite, such as the Scipios, and conservatives such as Cato the Elder. Bringmann fails to discuss the character of Roman art and culture prior to its Hellenization and neglects to detail what that art and theater actually looked like or said. His analysis falls short of providing insight into the culture itself, but rather simply acknowledges that changes in the culture corresponded with changes in politics. For example, he discusses the Bacchanalian affair by reporting on how the senate responded, but does not actual lay out what the Bacchanalian cult itself did or its context in larger Roman society.

Bringmann, in his chapter on the development of the monetary economy, addresses the consequences that minted currency brought to Roman politics. He does analyze the nature of Roman economics, mentioning the Roman transition from a barter-based, agrarian society into one involving finances and trade. Yet this analysis is limited to the economic activities of the equestrian and senatorial classes, admittedly the two primary economic forces in the Roman Republic but also both parts of the elite. He neglects to discuss the economic circumstances of the proletariat and small landowners. Bringmann also discusses the manner in which money began to influence and corrupt Roman politics, and touches upon the war debts that were accrued in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. There are parts of this chapter which provide interesting archeological insights and allow for a broader view on the Roman economy. Bringmann talks about the changing weights and value of Roman currency, and numerous images of Roman coinage are featured.

The chapter on the agrarian crisis of the 2nd century provides interesting insights into the nature of landownership and property rights in the Roman Republic, but is largely limited to their characteristics during the 2nd century. Bringmann’s analysis of property ownership is, again, largely limited to that of the elite classes and neglects a discussion of the lower classes and the nature of their property. Additionally, he does not provide much in the way of demonstrating how property ownership developed and changed in the centuries leading up to the agrarian crisis. His analysis mostly puts the political issues associated with landownership into context, and is therefore largely a discussion of the political rather than economic consequences. Indeed, this chapter serves more as background to his following chapters on the Gracchi than it does as an analysis of economics in Rome.

It must be acknowledged that Bringmann, in the first chapter of his book which details the origins of the Latin people, the foundation of the city of Rome, and the establishment of the Roman political order, does excel in his analysis of Roman society. He draws heavily from archeological data, presenting and discussing these archeological findings in the text, and lays out in detail the development and characteristics of archaic Roman society and culture. Yet to a degree it seems as though Bringmann has no choice but to provide a detailed analysis of Roman culture in this chapter, for he must describe the foundation of the city of Rome, which involved changes in settlement and cultural patterns, and the underlying social conditions of Italy before he can begin his narrative on Roman politics. Furthermore, there are very few, if any, primary sources contemporary to this time, and he must therefore rely upon the use of archeological data and broad cultural analysis to detail the developments of this time. Once his political narrative begins, however, he does not return to the deeply analytical discourse on culture that he provided in this chapter.

Bringmann does not entirely neglect Roman culture and society, though his analysis of them is intended to give context to Roman politics rather than actually discuss the culture itself. Perhaps such a criticism is overly harsh if Bringmann intended his book to be read as only a narrative of Rome’s political and military history, and as a student of history particularly interested in these aspects of Republican Rome, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. Yet, as mentioned at the beginning of this critique, a true understanding of any historical civilization requires not only knowledge of its politics and military conquests but also knowledge of its culture, its society, and the lifestyle of both the elites and the masses. Again, Bringmann does not provide this, and I therefore felt his history was not the comprehensive analysis of Rome that it is touted as being.

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