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Communism and China

January 29, 2010

Benjamin I. Schwartz. Communism and China: Ideology in Flux. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

In his 1968 compilation of essays Benjamin Schwartz continues his analysis of the development of Chinese communist ideology which he began in his earlier volume, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Published in the context of the Vietnam War, Communism and China responds to the desperate search to unravel the communist puzzle during this era. In this work, Schwartz demonstrates the same ability to make astute, contextualized observations of ideological shifts in the development of Maoist communism that characterized his earlier book. Schwartz argues that China’s increasing assertion of ideological autonomy from the Soviet Union was transformed into an attempt to seize the seat of ideological authority and become a model for burgeoning communist countries in the “developing” world. Schwartz takes this argument a step further to say that by establishing an independent ideological interpretation of communism, China enabled the emergence of endless potential ideological paths to communism. In so doing, China effectively prevented the establishment of any single seat of ideological authority over communism.

Beginning with his first essay, “China and the Soviet Theory of ‘People’s Democracy,'” Schwartz delineates how careful employment of specific communist terminology reflected an early ideological split between China and the Soviet Union. Noting that political terminology can reveal a regime’s intent, Schwartz illustrates how China, by coining of the term “new democracy” rejected the Soviet Union’s ideological tutelage. The Soviet Union had grouped China with all of the new communist regimes by identifying China with the same terminology, namely “people’s democracy” (p. 57). Although China deliberately avoided outright confrontation over these terms, it refused to accept the authority that the Soviet Union attempted to assert over China through the use of them. Schwartz sees this exchange as an example of how the ideological stances associated with these terms both bound and divided the two states.

Schwartz also points out how the peculiarity of communism as an international ideology created an intimate connection between domestic policy and foreign affairs in China’s political history. Because any domestic policy that China enacted was either an application of or deviation from Soviet rhetoric, all domestic policy impacted China-Soviet relations. In turn, external events influenced domestic policy. For example, Schwartz argues that the Hundred Flowers campaign was a reaction against the uprisings in Poland and Hungary. In a similar vein, China’s decision to back the Soviet Union against these two states was an effort to gain legitimation in Soviet eyes so as to assert its own form of communism more freely at home (p. 123). Arguing against an increasing body of literature that favored political and economic explanations of change, Schwartz illustrates through these examples that ideology was in fact central to China’s political actions.

The tone of Benjamin Schwartz’s writing intensifies in his later essays as he explores the power struggle between China and the Soviet Union during the heat of the United States involvement in Vietnam. As a result of the post-Stalinist campaign to appear less hegemonic, Khrushchev publicly softened the ideological parameters of communism, officially allowing for China’s divergent approach. Once China achieved official recognition of its “creative application” of communism, it entered into what Schwartz termed a “hegemonistic conflict” with the Soviet Union (p. 199). Both powers vied for the position of ideological mentor of the rising socialist polities. Schwartz argues that this competition for control was futile. Through his examination of the politics of ideological transitions, Schwartz unveils the ideological dilemma that China unknowingly created for itself. In asserting a separate path, China set a precedent for other countries to do the same. China thus eliminated itself, and everyone else, from gaining ideological control.

Schwartz’s closely researched analyses belie the sweeping assumption of a monolithic communism which was fervently espoused by some scholars in the United States at that time to explain Vietnam’s links to the Soviet Union and China. In his protest against western blindness to the incredible diversity of political, cultural, and historical circumstances in the many countries which were considered by the United States to be threatened by communism, Schwartz demonstrates the misleading nature of the Red Scare. Yet, at the same time, he cautions against the bombastic rhetoric of the left which asserted, “American social structure is inherently imperialistic while Communist social structures are ‘inherently’ nonimperialistic.” Schwartz refutes this equally politically-charged stance when he “raises the question whether any ‘social system’ as such is inherently one or the other” (p. 28). Finally, a salient characteristic of this book is its loyalty to the moment of writing. Conscious of the skewed perspective that retrospective analysis can have on one’s own thoughts, Schwartz left his essays as unaltered reflections of their time.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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