Chen Yung-Fa, the author of an authoritative study of the
Chinese communist revolution, Making Revolution (1),
provides us here with an excellent overview, covering seventy years of that revolution,
from the early beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s until
the 1990s. In Making Revolution, he showed that during the Sino-Japanese
war the revolution was far from being the outcome of spontaneous mass movements.
In fact, it was brought about by localised political activity aimed at organising
the CCP in the countryside in central and eastern China. During the war, the question
of building the single party state was of central importance. Not only does the
author reaffirm this fundamental point, but he also demonstrates the importance
of the communist leaders’ ideological outlook and their perceptions of the
revolutionary process. Clearly, this gives us the classical outlines of a general
history of Chinese communism, in which the currents of ideas and the events affecting
the national situation are traced out, both in their international context and
through the directions pursued by the different leading figures, showing their
reciprocal influences. Such interactions involved not only the charismatic leaders
of the CCP: Chen Duxiu, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, but also the Soviet leaders
and advisers, and other figures who were behind the peasant uprisings. The political
and social issues are clearly laid out and provide the basis for some remarkable
analyses and overviews of the main events of the revolution. The author’s
perspectives on the history of the Chinese revolution are extremely well informed.
He emphasises that it was carried forward by the elite members of the Party and
society, and his careful use of terminology allows us to grasp the distinctions
between the different social layers and personality types involved.
The work is divided chronologically into three sections: “Taking
power”, from the early 1920s to 1949; “Uninterrupted revolution”,
from the 1950s until the end of the Cultural Revolution; and finally, “Good-bye
to revolution”. This division works well, throwing light on how the leading
figures shaped the revolutionary process through their ideology, their acts, and
their mutual confrontations. Society is described in analytical detail and within
a broader overview, with particular attention being paid to the problems arising
from state control by a single party, and to the limits of the autonomy permitted
to the various social players, in particular the different categories of intellectual.
The author is careful to distinguish the social reality from constructs belonging
to the purely ideological realm, such as the “rich peasant” category.
This was devised by the CCP for political ends, but it generally informs the analysis
to be found in Party documents.
To explain the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT), the author
identifies three basic problems associated with the building of the power of the
CCP: nationalism, the organisation of power at the grassroots, and ideological
reform and control. In all three areas, the CCP succeeded where the KMT failed.
The support of the masses (particularly the poor peasantry), an excellent military
strategy, and a political strategy aimed at gaining the support of leading sections
of the middle and upper classes, who were disillusioned with the KMT, all combined
to give military and political victory to the CCP. In order to explain the subsequent
history, the author puts the question in the following way: what were the reasons
for the successful economic modernisation of Taiwan, while the CCP failed to follow
the “ideal” path of modernisation set by Europe and the United States?
This approach, however, is problematical insofar as it adopts a predetermined
The author shows us the unprecedented control exercised over
rural and urban society by the single party state, operating through local cells
and work units isolated from each other. The lack of economic and cultural freedom
increased after the 1957 campaign against intellectuals and counter-revolutionaries
and the Great Leap Forward. The latter, by completely suppressing the commercial
economy, led downwards towards a “natural” subsistence economy. But
he also shows us that, within the context of developing Chinese nationalism at
the time, the problem confronting the intellectuals was less a question of modernising
China along “Western” lines than of defining a Chinese road to modernity.
Chen emphasises that at first, before it became a matter for
professional revolutionaries, the communist revolution was the concern of a small
group of idealist intellectuals, influenced by the anarchist and Marxist-Leninist
ideas which they had discovered in Japan. And the participation of all intellectuals
was vigorously encouraged by the Party up until the campaign against counter-revolutionaries
in 1957. The development of the Party’s ideology is situated in the context
of its relations with Sun Yat-Sen, the KMT, and the Comintern. The author emphasises
the lasting influence of anarchism as well as the CCP’s dependence on the
Comintern, particularly in terms of finance and the role played by Russian advisers
in formulating revolutionary strategy.
The reader is reminded that the peasant movements of 1926-27
were launched by intellectuals from the great rural families, like Peng Pai and
Shen Dingyi. The author also gives us a remarkable analytical description of the
workers’ movement of the 1920s. Relying on the authoritative works of Jean
Chesneaux and Elizabeth Perry, he shows that, despite competition from other workers’
movements, the CCP established a foothold in working class areas and strengthened
its position within the United Front, by operating within the legal and semi-legal
limits permitted by the KMT. This strategy gave reassurance to the workers. After
the workers’ strikes of 1925, the CCP members who had entered the KMT attempted
to take control by relying on a strengthening of the party through rallying the
workers. But this was not a premeditated plan. The strategy of the KMT was then
to push the CCP towards illegal forms of struggle, and this led to the repression
of 1927 and the end of the first United Front.
Chen Yung-Fa also dismantles certain myths, like that of Chen
Yonggui, glorified by Mao as a national hero during the Cultural Revolution. We
learn that this secretary of the production team at Dazhai achieved the total
collectivisation of land and the means of production by recourse to force and
physical violence, and not by following the Party’s principles and recompensing
peasants in accordance with their work conduct and their ideological conformity.
To sum up, this work gives an authoritative account of the
communist movement in China, and is lively, remarkably well documented, and pleasurable
to read. However it lacks a critical introductory analysis of its main sources,
like the biography of Mao by Xing Zilin (2).
Translated from the French original by Jonathan Hall