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The Reality of Ideology

May 1, 2010

The Reality of Ideology: Rethinking the Early Years of PRC Rule

Ellen Huang (2003)

In his preface to Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, diplomatic historian Michael Hunt explains why he decided to write a book about the slippery subject of ideology and its relationship to U.S. foreign policy. Writing in 1987, Hunt complains that historians have focused their attention too narrowly on the changes in defense strategy, the role of bureaucratic politics, foreign policy, domestic politics, and elite interests and influence. In light of this myopia, “it is time that ideology received its due.” For Hunt, in order to understand American Cold War history, one must account for how deeply rooted cultural values and “its elements had coalesced into a powerful, mutually reinforcing body of thought that had gone far beyond dominating the thought of those most concerned with foreign policy issues” (Michael Hunt, xii).

Hunt is not alone in his effort to reassert the centrality and importance of “ideology.” In writing the history of the transitional years from 1949 to 1953, Chinese scholars have also dealt with issues of ideology in multitudinous ways over the last fifty years. Recently, diplomatic historian Chen Jian has also endorsed Michael Hunt’s desire to examine the relationship between ideology and foreign policy in his book, Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chen Jian goes so far as to state definitively: “The Cold War was from the beginning a confrontation between two contending ideologies – communism and liberal capitalism” (Chen Jian, 6).

Still, a major distinction exists between the fields of U.S. and Chinese history. While scholars of U.S. and Western European history may have ignored ideology and thought since the failure of the Vietnam War and end of the Cultural Revolution, historians of early PRC history have never truly denied the role of ideology in the Communist Revolution in the years following 1949. This concentrated attention to ideology in the Chinese case in turn reveals much about the American (and Western) ignorance of its own forms of ideology. This blindness to ideology’s impact in the West may also have given rise to simplistic definitions of ideology that bind it in opposition to “practice,” and “reality,” or merely as “communist,” “totalitarian,” and “irrational.”

As this paper will show, the ways in which ideology is portrayed varied across disciplines, authors, and time. Ideology has been defined as a set of cultural values, a political doctrine or a viable alternative to capitalism; emphases on one over the other have important ramifications on the appraisal of Chinese history as a whole. Lastly, I will consider alternative concepts of ideology and its utility to the writing of history.

Ideology = Communism = Totalitarian 1950s China

A. Doak Barnett’s book Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-1955 was one of the first books to deal with the formative years of the newly established Chinese People’s Republic. Barnett, like several other American scholars, was actually living in Beijing during the last years of the Chinese Civil War and later moved to Hong Kong, where he stayed until 1955. From Hong Kong, he recorded his observations of the new regime, using mainland publications and interviews with refugees. Lacking an overarching analytical framework, Barnett did not intend the book to be a general history or over-all analysis.

What Barnett did intend was to provide a first-hand account of major developments of the period immediately following Communist Party victory. For Barnett, one of the most important developments was the “application of mass totalitarian forms of organization to the Chinese scene” (Barnett, 12). Crucial to the party’s plan was the evolution of unique communist forms of propaganda and group indoctrination through which the regime would initiate its program to “‘remold’ an entire nation ideologically” (Barnett, ix). Barnett also determines the government’s exercise of power a “monopoly of both physical and moral power,” the latter of which is achieved through “tremendous,” “all-encompassing,” “pervasive,” and “colossal ideological campaigns” (Barnett, 19, 71, 103, 119). The significance Barnett imputes to ideology is obvious: “More time, effort, and energy are devoted to influencing what people think than to any other activity in China,” as the government believes “revolutionized attitudes” form the firm foundation on which later change occurs (Barnett, 71).

Mentioning official newspapers, university reforms, group study units, thought-reform participants, short stories, and film, Barnett concluded that, “nothing is nonpolitical” (Barnett, 71). Rather than interpreting the content of 1950s popular culture for possible nodes of resistance, Barnett saw nothing other than the ideological reach of a communist regime. Certainly, this emphasis on state perspective reflects Barnett’s disciplinary affiliation as a political scientist. Still, his descriptions of ideology must also be understood in the context of the highly polarized political atmosphere of the Cold War. By no means an intellectual historian or political theorist, Barnett was not interested in the actual content of the state’s ideology; for him, China at this time was “radical,” “disturbing” and “Communist.” Such apprehensions about China’s ideology reveal much about the geopolitical tensions during the first decade of the Cold War.

While the first half the book stressed the “frightening” ideological aspects of Communist rule, the bulk of the latter half focuses rather optimistically on economic development and progress. Among the government’s accomplishments were: proliferation of schools, construction of infrastructure, waterworks, industrialization, exports, and agricultural production. Here, the activities of the state were no longer “ideological” but simply examples of always desirable “development.” Clearly, ideology, for Barnett, belongs to the realm of thought. Furthermore, ideology specifically denotes a Communist, totalitarian body of ideas and doctrine. By separating ideology from the tangible effects of economic development, Barnett allows development to take on a life of its own, as if the motivations driving “modern development” are natural and self-evident. Moreover, in Barnett’s schema, “development” does not have the overtones of an oppressive or “totalitarian” ideology.

Ideology vs. Reality

Barnett doubted the efficacy of attempts to induce widespread belief in Communist/Socialist principles and the possibility of translating thought reform into real change. To prove his point, Barnett raises the example of a Chinese friend, Paoli, who defected to Hong Kong soon after becoming disillusioned with the party’s ability to develop China. Barnett relates an encounter with Paoli who had once seemed to be a “model of the most Westernized kind of modern Chinese youth” (Barnett, 118). Yet, after Paoli beseeches Barnett for monetary support to help fund his family New Years’ festival, Barnett ponders the “persistence of tradition” in China. He comments on the family celebration as a pre-modern “age-old” event. As such, Barnett doubts whether “permanent reality and actual dimensions of change” have taken root despite all the political changes (Barnett, 121).

The inadequate framework of traditional vs. modern China aside, Barnett’s doubts reveal another binary underpinning his evaluations: ideology vs. reality. In this view, ideological change is divorced from reality and therefore not “truth” (89). Indeed, he dismisses any conversion in ideology, like that of his American friend, “Mrs. Smith,” as indoctrination, and hopes it will eventually “wear off” (115). The implication is obvious: communism/socialism is not a viable alternative. Thus Barnett pits Communist ideology in stark opposition to the real, tangible benefits detectable in the quantifiable realms of economical and institutional development.

Another work that replicates this distinction between ideology as thought vs. development as actual progress is Jonathan Spence’s comprehensive textbook, The Search for Modern China. With more stylistic grace and measured language, Spence’s narrative of the early fifties China shies away from discussing ideology and the principles of Mao’s communist/socialist thought. Providing impressive arrays of details and figures about Korean War death toll, land reform acreage, government structure, party bureaucracy, economic production, and state intimidation tactics, Spence opts to relay the real details of events and changes, both positive and negative. In his account, the relationship between Mao’s ideology and these real changes is left unexplored.

As a historian who is well known for his interest in ideas, Spence’s elision of ideas in his treatment seems odd. In fact, he does not wholly disregard ideas, as his chapter on the transitional period begins with an explanation of Mao’s 1949 essay, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Encapsulated in this essay were the ideas that “would permeate the governmental policies of the new Chinese state” (Jonathan Spence, 489). In the case of Spence, ideas are important, but ideology, meaning a political “-ism” whether socialism or communism, is not.

Two examples from the text demonstrate this point. He notes the failure of thought reform schools to truly reform former prostitutes, as many of them returned to their jobs after release. The gradual reduction in numbers of prostitutes was in fact due to practical efforts at “social control and constant supervision” (Spence, 493). Thus, the assumption in this analysis is that attempts to instill true belief in (Communist, socialist) ideology and thinking for the most part failed and that real measures of control produced change. Another case in point is Spence’s treatment of China’s decision to enter the Korean War. Foreign policy was not of “central importance” to PRC leaders in the early 1950s. Rather, domestic issues and national territorial sovereignty according to Qing-era borders guided foreign policy. Giving primacy to national security concerns, Spence views American intervention in North Korea and the presence of the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan straits as the main instigators of Chinese involvement in the Korean War.

Spence is more even-handed in his assessment of the early PRC years than Barnett, stressing both the PRC’s accomplishments and the coercive actions of this time period. With regard to the conflict and eruption of war in Korea, all parties involved shared some blame for delaying Sino-American friendship for another twenty years. However, he and Barnett both deny the possibility of ideology having any contribution to the “real changes” of development achieved during the transitional years. Whether dismissive or denigrating, Spence and Barnett render the ideas embedded in communism or socialism useless to the modern world.

Ideology vs. Rationality

The relevance of “ideology” and PRC foreign policy in the early fifties figures prominently in the theses of two books published forty-one years apart: Allen Whiting’s China Crosses the Yalu (1960), and Chen Jian’s Mao’s China and the Cold War (2001). Like Spence, Whiting argues that Chinese leaders were extremely reluctant to enter the Korean War. Only after China had exhausted all political and diplomatic measures, did the government send PLA troops to cross the Yalu River in October 1950. Limited to official Chinese sources, Whiting provocatively challenges the assumption of a monolithic Communist bloc comprising of the Soviet Union and China as her puppet. Speculating, he downplays the influence of Moscow on Beijing’s choice to participate. Threatened by the rearmament of Japan, China entered the war in order to defend national interests (Allen Whiting, 160, 168).

In Whiting’s final analysis, the ideological component of Beijing’s foreign policy in 1950 was negligible. He admits that the “ideology of communism” formed a frame of reference within which Beijing developed foreign policy, but was not a determining factor (Whiting, 6, 152). Assuming the rationality of Beijing leaders, Whiting ultimately contends that adhering to communist ideology was subordinate to rational pragmatic decision. For Whiting, therefore, ideology is not rational.

Chen Jian contends the opposite regarding ideology’s impact on foreign policy in his well-documented and highly readable study of China’s Cold War history. At the heart of Chen’s book is his opinion that “ideology matters.” Both Whiting and Chen acknowledge the internationalist and expansionist aspects of communist ideology; Chen places this ideology at the center of all PRC decisions. Tracing the history of China’s engagement in each of the Hungarian, Polish, Korean, and Vietnamese socialist campaigns, Chen makes a convincing case for the centrality of Mao’s doctrine of “continuous revolution” and the role of world communist ideology in Chinese, and specifically, Mao’s foreign-policy strategy. In doing so, he also relates domestic mobilization efforts to the PRC’s international aims.

By re-introducing the power of ideas – Mao’s communist ideals – to China’s Cold War diplomacy, Chen’s book offers many valuable insights into the mind of Mao and his influence in the international arena. He challenges the notion of passive PRC leaders as adjunct to the leaders of the two contending superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

If divergent ideologies shaped Cold War polarization, divergent interpretations of ideologies also dismantled the socialist camp, marking the end of the Cold War. As the polemical debates between Mao and Khrushchev demonstrate, the ideological rift weakened the force of the world communist movement by dividing the two states as well as unraveling confidence in international communism.

Chen’s emphasis on ideas does not preclude him from portraying ideology as irrational. With Mao’s death, the demise of the Cold War, and disintegration of the continuous revolution process, Chen concludes that it is time to “say farewell” to the past and now “have confidence in the Chinese people’s ability to make rational choices” for the modern future (Chen Jian, 283). The implication of dating the beginning of rationality to the end of Mao’s revolutionary project is obvious. In this sense, his conceptual approach to ideology shares similarities with Whiting’s framework: ideology is unreasonable. To Chen, Mao’s importance cannot be overlooked. The dynamic underlying Mao’s foreign policy of “continuous revolution” was a “psychological force” made up of deep-rooted “post-revolutionary anxiety” and “insecurity” over China’s inferior position in the world (Chen, 10, 11, 72). Moreover, the fervency of this profound psychological orientation combined with an “age-old Central Kingdom” concept gave rise to a unique “Chinese people’s victim mentality” in modern times (Chen, 12, 279). Here Chen’s conclusions are suspect as he uses a “Central Kingdom” concept that resonates with John K. Fairbank’s “Sinological worldview” of barbarian management. To the Chinese people, victim mentality was “more humiliating and less tolerable” in light of perceived former glories. As such, Mao’s ideology is reduced to being irrational as well as pre-modern. Finally, Chen criticizes the failure of China’s post-Mao reform policiens who were in real and perceived danger of losing their territorial and cultural sovereignty to Western forces. In light of her study, Chen could have situated the emergence of victim mentality discourse to a specific moment in modern Chinese history and take seriously threats of imperialism.

Rescuing and Rethinking Ideology

So far, I have outlined four major works with diverse views regarding the place of ideology in early fifties Chinese experience. These works are each valuable in their own way but exhibit conceptual limitations in that they all deny the real possibilities that were opened up by socialist/communist ideology. In this sense, while they take ideas seriously, they divest these ideas of their revolutionary potential and disregard the social conditions from which those ideas arose at different specific historical contexts. In doing so, they also privilege the idea of development as being the sole marker of qualitative progress, de-historicize progress as a modern concept, ignore (American/Western) imperialism, and judge China according to a yardstick that privileges rationality, progress, and, therefore, Western liberal, capitalist experience.

One interpretation of Chinese Communist history that avoids these biased judgments can be found in Maurice Meisner’s discussion of the early PRC in his textbook, Mao’s China and After. For Meisner, Chinese communism was neither inherently irrational, nor merely an “ism” divorced from reality. Mao’s Marxist utopian dreams resulted in both oppression and progress. Meisner shows this by analyzing thoroughly Mao’s theoretical essay, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship,” and observes how the essay outlines different stages of development, including capitalist and socialist characteristics. Unlike Spence, Meisner shows how such policies as land reform and urban program had their roots in Mao’s twin objectives of a strong state and strong economy — both integral to Mao’s Marxism. By addressing the problems of bureaucracy in relation to the French and Russian Revolution, he dispenses with any culturalist explanations of the revolution and its later development. He therefore defends the potentiality of Chinese communist ideology instead of damning it from its beginning (Maurice Meisner, 113).

Another book that disturbs the notion of ideology as “irrational and unreal” notion is Adele and Allyn Rickett’s testimony of their experience in thought reform, Prisoners of Liberation. Incarcerated for four years in a Chinese jail on charges of espionage in 1951, the Ricketts were finally released in 1955. During their years spent in study groups and criticism sessions, they experienced a transformation in their narrow-minded worldviews. While they were at first haughty Americans and unreflective critics of the Chinese communist movement, they slowly came to see positive humanist values in the ideals of communism (Ricketts, 288). The portrayal of “Mrs. Smith,” or Adele Rickett as indoctrinated, in A. Doak Barnett’s book typifies the skeptical reaction regarding their “real” and “rational” intellectual reorientation. After the Ricketts’ release, they published their story to combat widespread suggestions of being brainwashed and to validate their paradigm shift as rational and, even, of a “higher social morality” (Ricketts, 284). From their account, communist ideology is more than just a set of political or economic beliefs; it also contains the values of a more universal, tolerant, and loving world.

Contemporary reviewers remained dubious, and for good reason, considering their special treatment as foreigners and ignorance of the policies of terror adopted by the CCP that others, such as Meisner and Spence, have noted. The fact remains, however, that continuing disagreement over their testimony as truth or fabrication forces historians to confront issues of epistemology and the limits of “reason” or “rationality” in history.

As such, the next step for historians interested in creating a working framework of ideology might do well by considering the truthfulness of Michael Hunt’s statement regarding ideology, as quoted in my first paragraph. Pierre Bourdieu has similarly argued for a notion of “practice” or action as motivated by principles that are sometimes hidden from the actors themselves. Recently, David Luft’s exploration of turn-of-the-century Viennese intellectuals has also affirmed the need for historians to re-examine the relationship between agency, thought, and reason or consciousness. Indeed, if we were to accept the significance of Mao’s “anxiety” in Cold War history, then we must dethrone reason and consciousness from their esteem as the dominant and defining feature in human nature.

One way historians might proceed to take into account the relationship between history and the unconscious may be to broaden the definition of ideology to include more than just reason and conscious ideas. Foucault once advocated more attention on the part of historians to period discourse, defined as an epistemological space specific to a particular era. By diverting attention away from the thought vs. reality or rational thought vs. irrationality question, scholars can extend the meaning of ideology to encompass this space, returning meaning and history to reality and action.


Barnett, A. Doak. Communist China: The Early Years, 1945-1955. New York: Praeger, 1965.

Chen, Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of Carolina Press, 2001.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Karl, Rebecca. Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Luft, David. Eros and Inwardness in Vienna: Weininger, Musil, Doderer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Second Edition. New York: Free Press, 1986[1977].

Rickett, Adele and Allyn. Prisoners of Liberation. New York: Cameron Associates: 1957.

Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999[1991].

Whiting, Allen. China Crosses the Yalu. New York: Macmillan Co., 1960.

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