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Contradictions

Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time extensively. It was important to interview people…and this required a fluent knowledge of Chinese as it is spoken today.” These statements, daunting to the layman, are terrifying to anyone involved with Chinese studies. Yet he is not exaggerating. Not only has the author steeped himself in contemporary Chinese sources, and read virtually all the secondary material available, but he has brought his formidable understanding of history and sociology to bear on this vitally important subject.

Unlike many writers on the modern period, Professor Schurmann, a distinguished historian of traditional China, is both informed and informative on historical background. Nevertheless, in spite of this vested interest in Chinese history, he takes the slightly unfashionable view that the changes of the Chinese Revolution are more significant than the continuities. As he sees it, traditions have been irretrievably destroyed: The Confucionist ethos of the past has been replaced by Communism; the status once held by the gentry belongs now to the Party; the traditional “model personality,” the paterfamilias, has been superseded by the cadre. This makes contemporary China fundamentally different from any other previous society. He finds the persistence of earlier modes of thought among Chinese peasants, workers, and intellectuals an important but not essential factor. Thus for Professor Schurmann the main problem is not to understand the old China but to grasp the new Communism, and for this he often refers to Soviet parallels. This does not mean that he in any way accepts the useless abstraction of “World Communism.” His fundamental concern is with the interaction of Chinese Communism with Chinese realities.

Ideology and Organization in Communist China does not pretend to be a comprehensive study of China since 1949. Even within the purview of its title there are some serious gaps. The author himself points out that he has not attempted to describe the army, although it is obviously crucial to both the ideology and the organization of the new society. And although touched upon in various sections, neither academic nor political education is treated directly. However, to my mind, the most serious omission is chronological. It is now five years since the beginning of the policy of retrenchment after the “Great Leap Forward.” Yet Professor Schurmann, like other writers on this subject, says little beyond the fact that in some ways recent policy is a retreat to earlier policies. Perhaps this is inevitable. It is always difficult to write about the very recent past, especially in China where for the last six years virtually no political or economic statistics have been published. At no stage in Soviet development has the situation been so difficult in this respect. Nevertheless during these years a limited amount of material has appeared on Chinese organization and a great deal on ideology. Professor Schurmann uses this material to some extent; yet the clarity of his exposition, which is brilliant for the years 1949-60, diminishes considerably as we approach the present.

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The book then is a series of thorough and fascinating essays on aspects of Chinese thought, government, and society in the 1950s. There are chapters on ideology, the Communist party, government, management, economic control, the cities, and the villages. The essays are held together by common themes and preoccupations, most of which he develops by applying Mao Tse-tung’s theory of “contradictions.” Do people grow to resemble their pets or do they choose them for their sympathetic qualities? Whichever the case here, the author’s methods of analysis of Mao’s thought and Mao’s China have been deeply influenced by their subject. Professor Schurmann gives an interesting indication of this symbiosis of student and studied when he writes: “the sociologist finds it rewarding to talk with refugee intellectuals for they usually understand exactly what he wants.” Or perhaps Professor Schurmann wants to know what modern Chinese intellectuals have to say. In any case, Mao’s theory of “contradictions” has been incorporated into his analysis:

Through this book goes the thread that contradictions have been essential to the methods and inherent in the processes of the struggle for unity and transformation.

It is no coincidence that the Chinese characters on the book’s cover make up the word “contradiction.”

Mao’s theory of contradictions is simply an application to all political and social situations of the Hegelian and Marxist belief that in everything there are two opposed forces and that the struggle between them provides the dynamic of history. Where Mao differs from most Russians is that he extends the principle to Socialist and even Communist societies. Mao mitigates the dangerous implications of this by stating that there are two kinds of contradictions, the “antagonistic” and the “non-antagonistic.” Antagonistic contradictions can only be resolved by violence, but non-antagonistic ones can be solved by peaceful means. It is not absolutely clear how one should distinguish between the two types. But usually contradictions under feudalism or capitalism are antagonistic while those under popular front rule, socialism, or Communism tend to be non-antagonistic. According to Mao, the Revolutionary should analyze every situation by discovering the contradictions in it, categorizing them, and pointing out the “principal contradiction” which overrides all the others. This is the one that should be resolved. All contradictions change with time and the Revolutionary should constantly check and analyze their positions in thought or social structure. This is exactly what Professor Schurmann does; he looks for the “contradictions” in Chinese life and ideology at particular periods. Like Mao he has proved it to be an extremely fruitful technique.

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The learned and subtle chapter on ideology starts with a discussion on the contradiction between “ism” and “thought.” The author points out that the term “Maoism” is a purely western invention, and in his opinion a misleading one. In Chinese one refers to Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism, but to the “thought of Chairman Mao.” The distinction is between a complete and theoretical body of thought and a living, adaptable, and practical one. Marx, Engels, Lenin, and perhaps Stalin have discovered and stated universal truths, but Mao has found the practical way of applying them to China. Chinese leaders consider Mao’s thought as inspired and of great practical help both in China and in other countries at similar stages of development, but not—in theory at least—as a universal dogma. However, Professor Schurmann points out that this contradiction like all others has temporal limits, and there was a time in the early and mid Fifties when Marxism was the dogma and Leninism, not “the thought of Chairman Mao,” was the practical ideology. Whatever the names, however, the Chinese Communists have always had an articulated ideological structure, one part fixed and the other moving. This gives them far more flexibility than the Russians, whose many-layered but monolithic dogma has led them into hopeless ideological confusion since the destruction of Stalinism in 1956.

To Professor Schurmann the duality of “ism” and “thought” is relatively minor. The “principal contradiction” in revolutionary China is the clash between “red” and “expert.” The slogan “both red and expert” was first coined in 1957. But the tension reflected in it existed long before that in China and in all revolutionary countries. Every revolution depends on the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of its supporters; at the same time, however, all but the most primitive economies need expertise to survive, let alone develop. Fortunately for the revolutionaries, in every country that has had its own Communist revolution, communism has to a large extent become identified with nationalism, and “experts” are drawn from the classes most affected by nationalism—the bourgeoisie and gentry. Thus in China most of the trained people seem to be fundamentally in favor of the new regime, whatever their own privations. Hence Professor Schurmann’s implication that the “red and expert” contradiction is “non-antagonistic” seems reasonable. However, in order to function efficiently and receive the rewards they feel they deserve, “experts” want rationality and hierarchy. The “reds” are veterans of the Revolutionary war or active, poor peasants whose skills are fighting, agitation, and mobilizing people. Believing that they can rely on the spontaneity of “the masses,” the “reds” aim for passion, struggle, and equality—at least outside the Party—so as to liberate popular energy. In 1957 they led the attacks on bureaucratic privileges, misuse of official cars, special education facilities for children, and so on. It is the “red” element in Party and government that for the past nine years has insisted that all office workers should go for periods of days, months, or even years to the factories and villages to do manual labor. The “principal contradiction” between “red” and “expert” has many different aspects. Conflicts between the claims of Party and government, Party secretary and manager, “labor intensive” and “capital intensive” industry, economic independence and Soviet aid, a militia and a professional army, can all be looked at usefully in these terms.

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Like several other scholars, Professor Schurmann divides Chinese development during the Fifties into the period of the “expert” 1949-56, and that of the “red” 1957-60. However, his judgment of the two is less conventional. Many people regard the Chinese Revolution as the Peter Pan of revolutions: It does not want to grow up. (This view of course is only tenable for internal affairs; Englishmen or Americans are in no position to maintain that China’s foreign policy is particularly immature or reckless.) Most historians side with the “experts,” feeling that China should leave revolutionary fervor and settle down to ordered progress. Professor Schurmann on the contrary implies that the mistake was not the youthfulness after 1957, but the premature aging of the early Fifties. He particularly dislikes the close imitation of the Soviet Union during that period. It is interesting that while extremely careful to avoid using language loaded in any way to describe Chinese communism, he has occasionally allowed his emotional slip to show when describing the “cold grim” Russians.

If in Sino-Soviet relations Professor Schurmann’s heart is clearly with the Chinese, some of his most balanced and informative pages are on the application of Soviet methods to China, especially in industry. There is for instance a fascinating and detailed section on the unsuccessful attempt to apply in China the “one-man management” system by which industry was organized in a single hierarchical progression from Ministry to shop floor, with the managers having complete power over and responsibility for their subordinates. Although this Soviet system was official policy in China for four years, Schurmann argues that it failed even in the early Fifties because it went against two essential elements of Chinese communism: party influence on all aspects of life, and collective discussion of all issues. Both are related to “democratic centralism,” itself one of the most tantalizing and intangible “contradictions” in modern China. Whereas Stalin used “democratic” merely as an adjective to modify “centralism,” Chinese leaders think of democracy and centralism as two entities in a “non-antagonistic contradiction.” It is easy enough for us to understand Chinese “centralism” but “democracy” poses problems. The foreigner in China is struck by the great number of discussion groups. It seems as if discussions take place all the time, everywhere. Many, if not most, are taken up with absorbing instructions and information from superiors: Students, workers, and even peasants sit for hours analyzing leaders’ speeches and newspaper editorials. Some time is spent in party, mass, and small group meetings, discussing the application and adaptation of higher directives to the local situation. However, from time to time the party asks its lower members and outsiders for policy guidance. When this happens it is impossible to estimate the extent to which “the masses” say what is good for them rather than what they really think. In the universities it is certain that during the “hundred flowers” campaign the party’s request for criticism was not enough to elicit true feelings: the future “rightists” had to be cajoled into criticism. It would seem likely that less sophisticated workers and peasants would speak their minds more freely but they too appear to have considerable caution. Whatever the practical difficulties of two-way discussions from the top down and the bottom up, the system has nevertheless been an essential element of Chinese communism since the 1930s. In retrospect it can be seen that attempts to introduce rigid and authoritarian Soviet methods were bound to fail. Furthermore it is possible that by his concentration on administration and industry, Professor Schurmann has somewhat overemphasized their influence on the country even during the period of the “expert.”

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The period of the “red” can be said to have started in 1957 and reached its peak in 1958, though it is by no means over yet. Its slogan is “politics take command.” At the center, the Party gained considerable ground at the expense of the Government; and at the local level, which became increasingly important with rapid decentralization, it took over administration almost completely. Officials were replaced by “cadres” or changed hats to become them. The reds were in fact the cadres. In Soviet terminology a cadre is a group, but in China he or she is an individual. As the book makes clear, the Chinese themselves are very unsure how to define the term. Roughly speaking it means anyone with any kind of responsibility, but it has strong connotations of political orthodoxy (a quality of leadership) and lack of a particular skill. Nineteen-fifty-eight was the year of the cadres; they led the fervor of the Great Leap Forward. Rural cadres and some of the poor peasants pressed for the rapid and total introduction of the “commune,” and in this they were probably more radical than the Party leadership.

In his discussion of this period Professor Schurmann is working under great difficulties. His book is, after all, concerned with organization, but 1958, and to a lesser extent 1959 and 1960, were years of inspired and chaotic improvisation. In spite of this, he has managed to postulate an interesting if not entirely convincing model for the type of decentralization that took place. As for ideology, early in the book he states: “The Marxist Leninist view of the world may not be correct but it is rational not emotional.” It is its rationality that makes Chinese communism possible to analyze. However in 1958 everything was emotional. The rational desires of the leaders to utilize rural under-employment and enlarge units of agricultural production, which were behind the Great Leap Forward and the creation of the communes, were engulfed by a wave of millenarial fervor to build up China and achieve communism in three years, and to unify the dualities of town and country, soldier and civilian, and state and society. These dreams faded in the early Sixties when harsh reality forced a return to pragmatism and some concessions to the experts, but there have been indications, especially in the last six months, which show that they are by no means dead. Even when dealing with the irrational aspects of the Commune, Professor Schurmann has fascinating insights, as for instance on the choice of the word “commune” for its connotations of struggle. Ideology and Organization in Communist China is packed with just such insights. It is far more than a monument of painstaking and objective scholarship. It is easily the most provocative work I have yet seen on contemporary China.

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...
Reviewed in This Article

Ideology and Organization in Communist China
by Franz Schurmann
University of California, 640 pp.

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This article was first published in the July 7, 1966 issue of the New York Review of Books.