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Chinese Checkers

In Response to:

Contradictions from the July 7, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

Martin Bernal in his review [July 7] describes Franz Schurmann’s brilliant new book Ideology and Organization in Communist China as “easily the most provocative work…yet seen on contemporary China.” On the basis of this characterization one might expect some significant response in the review to the book’s arguments. Yet, Mr. Bernal, if one can judge by the review, seems to have been singularly unprovoked. May I respond, in loco reviewerus?

First, Professor Schurmann sees the theory of contradictions as “essential to the struggle for unity and transformation” (p. 103) in China. If I understand him, I find the theory of contradictions in practice somewhat circular. Schurmann says, the theory “has been put to three practical uses…for analysis,…as a basis for behavioral norms…[and] as an approach to create and use organization” (pp. 53-54). The first and third uses I take to be essentially the “recognition of contradictions” and the attempted “resolution of contradictions” (p. 75).

One might expect that a theory of such importance would have an independent validity as an analytical tool. But this does not appear to be the case. Since the “recognition of contradictions” has immediate action implications, it appears that contradictions will not be “recognized” until the leadership is prepared to deal with them. Thus, Schurmann writes, “the Chinese Communists have been careful not to label all dualities contradictions; some dualities are still considered relationships. When the elements of a duality are stated to be in contradiction, resolution must follow; this means policy consequences” (p. 101, italics added). On this reading, stating a duality to be a contradiction is another way of saying we intend to take action to deal with a bad situation. The “recognition” seems to follow from the decision to “resolve,” rather than vice versa. If this is so, the significance of the theory as an analytical tool in practice may be slight.

Second, I believe it is somewhat misleading to write, as Mr. Bernal does, that Schurmann “takes the slightly unfashionable view that the changes of the Chinese Revolution are more significant than the continuities.” Schurmann is not dogmatic on this point. It is, after all, a matter of balancing incommensurables. With respect to ideology and organization, Mr. Bernal’s statement seems accurate. But with respect to the social system, it seems to me, Schurmann is confusing. He has it both ways.

On the one hand, Schurmann argues that the “core elements of a social system,” ethos (Confucianism), status group (the gentry), and the modal personality (pater familias), had all been destroyed by 1949. Consequently, he writes, “with the traditional trinity of authority gone, the social system itself has disappeared” (p. 7). On the other hand, however, he recognizes that in the village, “China’s most typical form of social organization” (p. 10), “the bulk of the people…retain links with the past” (p. 16). Only with communization did the Communists attempt “fundamentally to transform the traditional work organization of the peasantry” (p. 497). And, of this attempt, Schurmann says, it “would seem to have been unsuccessful. There is little evidence that the fundamental work organization of the peasantry as a whole has changed” (p. 498).

Moreover, even cooperativization, aimed at destroying the power of the rich peasant in the village, has had only limited success: “the fact that the production teams have basic rights of usage over land gives the rich peasant an opening for acquiring de facto control over portions of land greater than that officially allotted to him. The production brigade now appears to be an area where Party cadres, loyal to the state, and ‘old peasants’ (most likely, rich and wealthy middle peasants), loyal to village interests, struggle with each other” (p. 498).

The importance of continuity in rural China is underscored by the recent study of G. William Skinner on “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. XXIV, no. 1, 2, and 3 (Nov., 1964. and Feb. and May, 1965)—one of the few works in the field of a quality comparable to Schurmann’s.

In that study Professor Skinner concludes that, as of 1962-64, “the analytic categories developed for the study of traditional Chinese marketing remain…[surprisingly] serviceable…. The central place hierarchy of premodern times persists, and there has been remarkable continuity in the functions performed in each type of market town” (p. 379). According to Skinner. “the traditional Chinese village is…being brought relatively intact into the modern world in the form of the production brigade…. With collectivization as with marketing, the Communists have been constrained to accept traditional structures as given, to build on their inert strength, and to work through them toward institutions of a socialist society” (p. 398). Professor Schurmann’s these demand antitheses. I have tried to present two, for what they are worth.

Richard M. Pfeffer

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Martin Bernal replies:

Mr. Pfeffer finds an inconsistency in Professor Schurmann’s treatment of the theory of contradictions. He quotes Schurmann’s statement to the effect that analysis is one of the uses to which the theory has been put. He then equates analysis with the recognition of contradictions to which Schurmann refers on a later page. These two are linked to another observation that “when the elements of a duality are stated to be in contradiction resolution must follow; this means policy consequences.” From this Mr. Pfeffer deduces that “the” recognition seems to follow the decision to resolve rather than vice versa, and goes on to say “If this is so the significance of the theory as an analytical tool in practice may be slight.”

The flaw in Mr. Pfeffer’s argument is his mistaken belief that Professor Schurmann equates recognition with analysis. In fact by the recognition of contradictions Schurmann appears to mean the public statement of the results of analysis rather than the analysis itself. It is nearer to his use of the world “reveal” in the passage, “it is imperative that analysis lead to discussion in which the contradictions can be revealed and resolved” (p. 57). There is no doubt that the relationship between the “recognition” and the attempted resolution of contradictions is extremely close, and that the Chinese leadership tend to “recognize” only those contradictions upon which they are prepared to act. But in what way apart from analysis can they organize reality so as to decide what the contradictions are and how and in what order their resolution should be attempted? Mr. Pfeffer’s argument does nothing to cast doubt on the truth evident to Professor Schurmann and anyone who follows events in China, that the method of organizational and economic analysis most often used by the leadership and cadres at all levels is that of the theory of contradictions. The fact that the results of these analyses frequently influence policy decisions gives great practical significance to the theory as an analytical tool.

Personally I agree with Mr. Pfeffer that the continuities in Modern Chinese Society particularly those in rural areas are extremely important, even though the survival of earlier organization and village leadership does not now appear quite so clear cut as it did in 1964. I also agree that when writing about a book as subtle as that of Professor Schurmann any statement such as “he takes the view that the changes of the Chinese Revolution are more significant than the continuities” is bound to be an oversimplification. Nevertheless I still maintain that Professor Schurmann’s overall bias is clear. At the end of the prologue he writes. “In preparing the manuscript of this book, I was repeatedly impressed by how little [Chinese] it appears to be. Where is China in all these processes? Chinese culture has not disappeared but China’s social system has. Revolutionary changes which began more than a century ago and were brought to completion by the communists have profoundly altered the substance and form of Chinese society [p. xivi].”

P. S. In loco takes the genitive.

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Martin Bernal was born in London in 1937. He studied at Kings College in Cambridge, and in 1959 attended Peking University. After taking his degree he did graduate work at Cambridge, the University...

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This article was first published in the August 18, 1966 issue of the New York Review of Books.