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The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China

January 29, 2010

Mark Selden. The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

For Mark Selden, the Communist Revolution embodied hope for other oppressed, impoverished peoples. In this book, he seeks to discover the key factors that led to what he sees as an incredible people’s victory in 1949. Writing against Chalmers Johnson’s thesis that “peasant nationalism sprang from the dislocation and suffering inflicted by the Japanese attacks” (p. 119), Selden argues that the communists succeeded in mobilizing the masses by incorporating military activism into active efforts to alleviate rural suffering. In Selden’s view, this layered strategy “is the hallmark of the Yenan period” (p. 120).

Selden begins his analysis by examining the context in which the communist leaders were able to recover their strength after the destruction of the Jiangxi Soviet and the Long March exodus. Their new stronghold, Yenan in northern Shaanxi, was ridden with drought and famine. The rampant suffering in the region makes a seemingly good case for support of the theory that revolutionary fervor among the peasants stems from mass discontent. However, Selden contests this analysis on the basis that discontent is undirected and cannot alone foster revolution. In this study, Selden pursues a more sophisticated explanation for the peasant support of the Communist Revolution.

The situation in Shaanxi before the arrival of the Long March veterans reveals an important connection between successful mobilization and a “detailed understanding of local conditions” (p. 47). Liu Zhidan, one of the most important early communist leaders in Shaanxi, recognized the importance of creating military security for the peasants whom he was trying to recruit. His guerrilla strategy in Shaanxi, similar to Mao Zedong’s in Jiangxi, created centers for communist expansion out of remote but defendable base areas. Liu and other partisan leaders in the Northwest were in continual conflict with city-dwelling party advisors who promoted a more urban-focused campaign. The deemphasis that Shaanxi partisan leaders placed on class struggle was among the points of contention between these two branches of the Chinese Communist Party that echoed the schism between Mao and Wang Ming, a Soviet trained member of the Central Committee. The bases that the Shaanxi partisan leaders established according to their own philosophy created a hospitable retreat for Mao and his followers in the abrasive, desolate Northwest.

The significance of Selden’s emphasis on the strategies of the Northwest partisan leaders becomes evident with Mao’s later success. Mao found fertile ground in the Shaan-Gan-Ning Soviet to sow his visions of peasant revolution. Land revolution, arousing peasant support for revolution through land redistribution, was the centerpiece of communist strategy. Selden argues that peasant support for the communist movement was based on communist land distribution policies. Successful expansion of land redistribution was only possible in such well defended bases as the early Shaanxi partisan leaders had created. Selden concedes that the Second United Front and the War of Resistance generated needed support; however, he maintains that, independent of these land reforms, the struggle against Japan only elicited support from the bourgeoisie and landed classes (p. 120).

In Yenan, Mao constructed an elaborate strategy to perpetuate the mass mobilization that the communists achieved during the War of Resistance. The Yenan Way was the “discovery of concrete methods for linking popular participation in the guerrilla struggle with a wide ranging community attack on rural problems” (p. 276). For Selden, all of the sequential campaigns of the Yenan period were elements of the central driving concept of the era, the mass line (p. 177). Intended to assure popular support and proper revolutionary direction, the mass line called for party policy to begin with a study of the people’s needs. Selden concludes that the mass line, which he calls “the essence of Yenan” (p. 177), is the means by which China’s struggling and oppressed people succeeded in rising out of their predicament. Selden’s reviewers, (Michael Lindsay, Pacific Affairs, 45.2 (Summer 1972): 279-280), (Donald G. Gillin, Journal of Asian Studies. 31.3 (May 1972): 659-660), and (James Harrison, New York Times Book Review (20 February 1972): 3), praise him for his penetrating scholarship, but hesitate, if not refuse, to underscore the contemporary political relevance of the Yenan Way that Selden sees. Selden’s perception of the communist movement reflects an empathetic perspective on the struggle in Vietnam. His interpretation of China’s communist victory contradicts Benjamin Schwartz’s measured, nonpartisan conclusion that China’s brand of communism can not effectively serve as a model for other peoples.

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