In Honor Of The 60th Anniversary Of The Chinese Revolution
Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China 1845-1945, Elizabeth Perry, Stanford University Press, 1980
As a follower of the orthodox Marxist tendency of historical development I have long tipped my hat to the famous dictum attributed to Karl Marx himself about the peasantry being a “sack of potatoes”. That, in Marx’s time, correctly reflected its place in the modern, revolutionary scheme of things. And over the long historical cycle that has ended, or will do so shortly, now that the bulk of the world’s population no longer lives a rural existence, Marx was right. He certainly was correct that the peasantry, by itself as a class, could not and has not created political systems based on their supremacy. However, Marx and this writer, frankly, underestimated the longevity of the peasant’s place in the world economy (a reflection, in part, of the continuing dominance of international capitalism and the failure of communist-led regimes to “solve” their agrarian questions in due course) and played a far greater, if subordinate, role in 20th century politics than I would have estimated.
All of the above is by way of noting, as we approach the 60th anniversary of the peasant-based Chinese revolution, that that revolution was probably the premiere example, in the 20th century, of the both the autonomous peasant rebellion in modern society and the need to harness nascent peasant rebellion to an urban-based revolutionary party in order to be successful. The book under review, Elizabeth Perry’s 1980 “Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China 1845-1945”, does as good as job as any in making the case for the limits of peasant rebellion, the various organization forms it takes, its place in local social structure and, finally, what conditions are necessary to take that tradition rebellion beyond localized conditions and gather it in to fight for state power.
As noted above, Professor Perry uses the now fashionably classic academic historical case study of a local geographic area method (Huai-pei-North China). She thereafter goes through the various phases of regional peasant organization and resistance to the state over the century under discussion. In the process she poses a question that is of interest, or at least should be, to current students of revolutions: why do some geographic areas have a history of rebellion while others do not and what that fact means for those who come later to organize those populations? Those of us who follow the urban Marxist tradition have our Paris Commune, the Vyborg district in the Russian Revolution, Hamburg in the various German uprisings of the early 1920s, or in the United States the great Midwestern autoworker sit-ins in the 1930s. Some of those traditional centers led to revolution others did not. China, as a reading of this book will reveal, also had its tradition centers or rebellion and revolt.
Of course in a rural setting the conditions for rebellion (or not) will of necessity center on the structure of the agrarian economy and not the least the ecology of the area as well. Ms. Perry goes through the contours of that ecology in North China (and this notion forms a central premise of her thesis), the role and reach of the central government, the creation of various protective or predatory, as the case may be, societies to deal with the changing conditions. Central emphasis is placed on the Red Spear societies that blossomed and became a force in Republican China in 1920s and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, especially in the anti-Japanese struggle prior to and during World War II. The tension between those two poles of attraction, including cooperation and conflicts, drives the main sections of the book. While none of Professor Perry’s general conclusions may be of help to today’s students of revolution she has presented an interesting thesis and plenty of information about North China during a critical period of history while defending her thesis. I have not checked to see if she has updated her work but that might be helpful, as well.