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The Abortive Revolution

January 29, 2010

Lloyd E. Eastman. The Abortive Revolution: China under Nationalist Rule, 1927-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

This is a damning investigation of the Guomindang during the Nanjing Decade, made more damning since this was its heyday. Lloyd Eastman frames his study in a series of seven chapters, each of which is an in-depth exploration of a subject designed to illuminate some aspect of the GMD’s failure. The introductory chapter, aptly titled “The Revolution Has Failed,” focuses on the GMD’s inability to inspire unity and commitment among its members, such that “the revolutionaries of the Northern Expedition had quickly been transmogrified into the traditionalist bureaucrats of the Nanking period” (p. 9).

“The Blue Shirts and Fascism” chronicles Chiang Kai-shek’s attempt to counteract the corruption of the administration through the formation of a revolutionary, fascist organization. While the Blue Shirts saw solutions to China’s problems that resembled those proposed by communists, their lack of faith in the masses provided them no social base from which to transform government or society. Furthermore, Chiang’s policy of encouraging factionalism prevented this group from gaining enough power to make a significant difference. “The Fukien Rebellion” describes the Nineteenth Route Army and Third Party’s failed attempt to build a revolutionary future for China in defiance of Chiang Kai-shek and his Blue Shirts. That Chiang’s own soldiers rose against him testifies to the weakness of his regime, while the rebellion’s rapid demise despite the success of their reform efforts speaks to the difficulties facing any social movement in the despairing political climate of the Nanjing Decade.

In “Democracy and Dictatorship,” Eastman explores debates about appropriate political systems among liberals in the press on the one hand and Guomindang leaders in their efforts to draft a constitution on the other. In the first case, liberal democracy had “shallow roots” when compared with the greater perceived need for a strong nation (p. 157). In the second, democracy surfaced more as a weapon in factional power plays than as a concept inspiring sincere political interest. Eastman concludes that for China, “an authoritarian system of rule is perhaps better able to produce the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number'” (p. 179-80).

“Nanking and the Economy” is an investigation of the Guomindang’s economic policies and class basis. Eastman considers what development existed to have been the result of foreign investment, while the Guomindang’s actions only dampened economic growth. Furthermore, contra Ho Kan-chih and Barrington Moore, Eastman contends the Guomindang had no reliable class basis in the landlord or urban capitalist classes. “On the Eve of War” demonstrates that Chiang Kai-shek responded to increased calls for political participation in the latter years of the decade with tactics designed to demobilize the vocal groups.

The final chapter, “Social Traits and Political Behavior in Kuomintang China,” takes a largely psychological approach. Eastman contends that the failure of this “revolution” arose from weak political institutions coupled with a persistent “political culture” that frustrated attempts to build a modern political state. No powers (including the party) existed in a strong enough form to check the abuses of self-interested administrators (p. 205). Furthermore, while such “social traits” as a political focus on personal relationships and an unquestioning submission to authority had served the traditional state and people well, they impeded the attempt to modernize China’s political system and economy (p. 310).

Eastman’s book is self-consciously provocative. While Susan Mann Jones (The American Political Science Review, 72.1:309-10) and James Sheridan (Journal of Asian Studies, 34.4:1037-9) both praised Eastman’s scholarship, they also anticipated “sharp dialogue and further research” (Mann Jones, p. 310) in its wake, particularly with respect to the final chapter on political culture. It is this groundwork laid for future debate that marks the book’s most valuable contribution.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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