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Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao

January 29, 2010

Benjamin Schwartz. Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Gerry Iguchi (2000)

The major argument of this book is that Chinese communism represents a “decomposition” of Marxism. This is an interesting point for Schwartz, a non-Marxist, to have made. The CCP did not have the proletarian base that a communist revolution, as prescribed by Marx, was supposed to have. This would have been impossible in the context of a China that was so relatively less developed industrially than was the 19th century England that Marx and Engels based their analyses of capitalism on. Schwartz indicates the way that Mao was able to realize the potential for a revolution with China’s peasantry as its social basis, while all the while, the official party line was to cling to the orthodox Marxist-Leninist fiction that the party as vanguard had an urban and proletarian basis.

In terms of the book’s politics, I discern two interrelated agendas. First of all Schwartz suggests that Communism outside the Soviet Union followed neither the blueprints for revolution as designed by Marx, nor some sort of master plan determined by the Comintern. In the context of a 1950s America plagued by the fear of Soviet conspiracies and espionage within the US, Schwartz was pointing out the fact that the Soviet Union was not the monolithic total determiner of the consciousness of global revolutionaries that many feared it was. However, because of these conclusions, Schwartz seems to be questioning the authenticity of Chinese Communism in practice because it failed to live up to the principles of Marxist-Leninism.

However, as Schwartz noted, Marxist-Leninism was already an adaptation of Marxism to a particular time and place, Russia in the early 20th century. This was Lenin’s genius. Mao’s genius was to adopt Marxist-Leninism to the Chinese case. One wonders why Schwartz’s understanding of Marxism is so rigid relative to Mao’s. As Paul W. Sweeny notes in a review of Schwartz’s book (Journal of Political Economy, Vol. LX, Feb.-Dec., 1952: 181), Marxism is “not at all a body of dogmas,” but rather a system of thought which allows us to learn about “unfolding historical processes.” I believe Sweeny makes a good point despite his overlooking of the fact that many Marxists have also been prone to too rigid an application of Marx’s abstract model of how history is supposed to progress from stage to stage (as, for example, the 1920s Rōnōha-Kōzaha debates on Japanese Capitalism attest). In sum, Mao emerges as the hero of Schwartz’s book because, unlike other CCP leaders he was able to develop a revolutionary strategy in which there was a pragmatic relationship between theory and practice. Please see Sweezy’s attached review.

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