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Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power

January 29, 2010

Chalmers A. Johnson. Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1937-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

Johnson argues in this book that the primary cause of the CCP’s success in North China during the Anti-Japanese War and its subsequent assumption of leadership of the national state was neither participation in an international Communist conspiracy nor the overwhelming appeal of its economic program, but its ability to provide experienced leadership and a nationalist political orientation to a population newly mobilized in response to Japanese invasion and misrule. He points to the Jiangxi Soviet experience of the 1920s and 30s as evidence that land reform policies and Marxist-Leninist ideology are inadequate to politicize rural populations and gain the broad-based popular support required to triumph in the contest for political primacy.

Johnson considers his ‘peasant nationalism’ to be a variety of the more general ‘mass nationalism that became so significant in the first half of the twentieth century. This nationalism, he contends, was different in kind from that of the Guomindang, which appealed mainly to intellectuals and the inhabitants of the treaty ports. It was this nationalism that allowed the CCP to expand in North China in the period following the Long March and, following victory in the civil war, to establish a government with not only power but authority. He posits two requirements for the appearance of mass nationalism. The first (following Karl W. Deutsch and E. J. Hobsbawm) is social mobilization. The second is a national myth. In his analysis, the social mobilization of peasants in Northern China was provoked by the Japanese invasion, whereupon leadership from the Communist base areas provided them with organizational assistance and the ideological “instruments for helping the rural masses attain a political understanding of the war to serve as a gloss on their personal experience” (p. 3).

Johnson compares the situation in China to that in Yugoslavia, where the German invasion provoked a social mobilization among peasants that made them receptive to nationalist leadership provided by the Yugoslav Communist Party. He points out striking similarities both in the strategies employed by the competing resistance movements in the two countries and in the places assumed by their post-war socialist states in the diplomatic world of international socialism.

The events of the past decade in the region that was, really only briefly, Yugoslavia, cast a certain amount of doubt on Johnson’s model of peasant nationalism. It would appear that the myth of Yugoslavia never really took. Chinese nationalism has proved rather more durable, but this does not necessarily indicate that it was stronger initially than Yugoslav nationalism. Indeed, Johnson fails to provide any detailed picture of how “anti-Japanese attitudes [acquired] as a result of the behavior of Japanese troops and the failure of Japanese leaders to offer a better alternative than resistance or slavery” (p. 69) were converted into nationalism. He hypothesizes the necessity of a national myth, and the CCP as the promulgator of that myth, but leaves its form all but entirely undefined.

All this leaves open the possibility that mass nationalism arose in China in a manner different from that Johnson outlines, at a different period, or even not at all. However, even if we were to replace the word “nationalism” in his title and throughout the book with a phrase such as “vague political consciousness,” the main structure of his argument, and the contention that the party which provides the most successful leadership against an invader is likely to draw the most support, would hold.

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