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Ideology and Organization in Communist China

January 29, 2010

Franz Schurmann. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

The bold argument put forward by Franz Schurmann in this book is that the newly born regime established by the CCP in 1949 is “a China of organization” (Prologue, iii). Schurmann claims that since the eighteenth century serious domestic problems regarding technological stagnation, population growth and prevalent misery, paired with the presence of Westerners who proclaimed a moral superiority, eclipsed the legitimate leadership of the ruling classes and triggered a long process of social revolution. The dynamics of social revolution, which aimed at the destruction of the inept old gentry, the core part of the traditional social system, was later effectively grasped by the CCP. Unlike the Guomindang, who still relied heavily on the traditional elite in their local government, the CCP established a powerful party organization staffed with a new elite – poor and young cadres indoctrinated with an ideology different from the anachronistic Confucianism. Using this organized political force, the CCP successfully rode the wave of social revolution to power.

Thus, for Schurmann, “organization” becomes the key factor to decoding the convoluted history of modern China. Using newspapers, tabloids, and articles on China written by journalists and scholars, Schurmann in this book undertakes to approach the complex structures of organizations created by the CCP from both a sociological and a historical perspective. He begins with a careful examination of ideology, the central element that holds organizations together. After an interesting discussion of the differences between pure theory (Marxism-Leninism) and practical thought (Mao Zedong Thought), Schurmann finds that the central ideas of Mao’s thought lies in his concept of “contradiction,” a concept widely used by the Chinese leaders in their attempts to adopt Marxism to concrete Chinese practices. He goes on to deal with the party and government, the structural aspects of organization. This is followed by an analysis of its two important functions: management and control. Schurmann ends with a discussion of the imposition of new organizations on cities and villages. He concludes with reason that the powerful and effective organization created by the CCP is quite different from the “Max-Weber-model” known to the West in that it has in-built deterrents against bureaucratization and routinization. This new systematic structure makes it possible for the CCP to reorganize the society and achieve political integration.

First published in 1966, this book was perhaps the first one available in English dealing with the institutional history of People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. A long supplement, which covers the period from 1961 to 1966, was added two years later. In this part, Schurmann traces the origins of the Cultural Revolution in terms of ideology, organization and society and argues that the deep roots lie in the different orientations between Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi towards ideology and the role of party. While Liu, a pragmatist, stressed the leadership of the party in guiding and controlling the masses, Mao emphasized the importance of the spontaneity of the masses and believed that increasing bureaucratization corrupted the party and alienated the masses. This fundamental divergence, compounded with power struggles, finally caused the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, a radical denial of the existing organizational order. Yet Schurmann notes that the Cultural Revolution was not merely guided from above. The students’ actions seemed to indicate that its driving forces also derived from society.

This reexamination, however, led Schurmann to revise several important components of his earlier conclusion. For example, he changes his view with regard to differences between “professionals” and “experts,” which he earlier regarded as identical. Most important of all, he realizes that “ideology and organization are not so all-powerful as I had thought them to be. Chinese society, particularly in the form of its social classes, is asserting itself against the state, and showing that it cannot be manipulated at will.” (Preface to the second edition, viii) Nevertheless, Schurmann’s book provides much-needed insights into the complex social fabric of Communist China. As David Stafford points out, this is a “near classic, widely recognized as scholarly and authoritative.” (American Sociological Review, Vol. 34, Dec., 1969, p. 984)

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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