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Enemies and Friends

January 29, 2010

Lyman P. Van Slyke. Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.

Chris Hess (2000)

For Van Slyke, the united front is an understudied component of the history of the rise to power of the Communist Party. In this groundbreaking work he argues that the united front was much more than a temporary alliance between the KMT and the CCP. Rather he sees it as a major component of CCP history, and traces it from its origins in the 1920s through the founding of the PRC and into the 1950s. By looking at this theme over time he finds that the united front changed from a flexible strategy enabling the Party to grow and strengthen during the war years into a more abstract ideological concept during the first decade of the PRC, as pragmatism became less of a priority (p.5). He concludes that this approach became such an important component of Chinese Communism, so linked with nationalism and the particularities of the Chinese revolutionary experience, that its preservation in the rhetoric of the 1950s became a symbolic necessity. According to Van Slyke it became part of the ideology used to validate the leadership of the Party and hence Mao (p.257-258).

Van Slyke finds that the transformation of the united front concept from a short-term strategy to a consistent CCP policy took place during 1939 and 1940. He argues that the large territorial and political expansion experienced by the CCP at this time necessitated strengthening its relationships with non-party elements in and outside of areas of CCP control. It was believed that the policy would minimize anti-Party hostility (p.109). Indeed, the formation of the “United Front Work Departments” reflects the institutionalization of this strategy (p.116). Moreover Van Slyke makes the important point that by the time of the civil war the use of the united front was the CCP’s own decision (p.186). Van Slyke notes the operational flexibility of the united front model as it allowed the CCP to move quickly from targeting the Japanese to targeting the KMT (p.189).

With the establishment of the PRC, the united front changed from a means of isolating an enemy and mobilizing friends, to building support for the new government (p.208). Van Slyke finds that this change involved the application of united front policies within groups now under CCP control. He gives good examples of this process as it functioned during land reform and the “five-anti” campaigns in which members of parties and groups once deemed “friends” during the civil war were intimidated into accepting total Party control (p.231-232). Van Slyke concludes that after 1957 the united front idea was transformed into a more abstract ideological formulation expressed in Mao’s “theory of contradictions,” a conceptualization that contains key characteristics of the united front approach (p.250-253).

In his introduction, Van Slyke writes “this study approximates a case history in the dialectical generation of Chinese Communist thought: from practice to ideology and back to practice” (p.3). He sees the disastrous Hundred Flowers campaign as an example of attempting to reapply the united front strategy after it had become embedded in Mao’s theory of contradictions (p.246). Van Slyke was praised by reviewers for his use of newly available sources and for the contribution this work makes to understanding a key element of Chinese Communist thought (Shirley, JAS 27.4:877-878). The constant need for struggle and the need to define a new enemy became internalized in Party ideology. Van Slyke points out that this became an aspect of “the individual remolding of the self” in which the correction of thought becomes the main preoccupation of the Party (p.253).

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