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Were These Revolutions Necessary?

Of course, Brinton’s model breaks down in the case of the Russian Revolution, where no similar cycle is in evidence. Skocpol quite rightly sees as crucial for the different course of both revolutions the contrast between the overthrow of the Jacobin dictatorship in the Thermidor of 1794 and the continuation of the Bolshevik dictatorship after the end of the civil war, thanks to Lenin’s transition to the New Economic Policy in 1921. She explains the difference mainly by different economic conditions. When the “War Communist” leap into Utopia proved impossible to continue, Lenin retreated to limited free enterprise; but “large-scale industry and foreign trade remained under central party-state controls, thus leaving the Communists (unlike the French Jacobins after 1793) with a solid organizational basis and interest in the economy.” Thus the Bolsheviks could turn to the new task of long-term industrialization—an alternative not open to the Montagnards.

But Skocpol misses another crucial condition for the different course of the Russian Revolution: the existence of a Bolshevik “Party of a new type.” Unlike the Jacobins, who had begun to kill off one another before being over-thrown by the Thermidor, the Bolshevik party was able to hold together not only during but after the civil war, in the changed conditions of the primacy of economic reconstruction. Although Skocpol recognizes this centralized party as Lenin’s great innovation, she draws no conclusion from that insight. Yet for her parallel between the French and Russian revolutions to hold, the Bolsheviks would have to be seen essentially as an imitation of the Jacobins—as many people have believed both at the time and since. In fact, they were not.

The Jacobins, as Brinton has shown in another, earlier study,4 were a loose club improvised in the course of the revolution, dominated by changing majorities and with little control over its corresponding clubs in the provinces. Revolutionary centralism was imposed in France not by a “Jacobin party”—which did not, in fact, exist—but by the commissaires en mission appointed by the revolutionary government. In contrast, the Bolshevik party created by Lenin in 1902 was a new kind of centralist organization, designed for the revolutionary conquest of state power (even if at first possibly in coalition with other revolutionary parties). Since the “October revolution” of 1917, this party had quickly gained exclusive control of all organs of government, political, economic, and military. Only such a centralized party could have transformed the revolutionary dictatorship of the civil war years that still existed in 1921—a dictatorship still comparable to that of the Jacobins at the height of the Terror—into a “dictatorship of development,” constructed to oversee the long-term industrialization of the under-developed Soviet economy.

But that means that from 1921, the Russian revolutionary process assumed a historically new nature, one no longer comparable to anything that had happened before—and that our comparative historian has missed precisely this historically new element. The new phase of the Bolshevik regime was characterized by the dual task of, on the one hand, industrial modernization in comparative isolation and, on the other, preserving monopolistic party power at all cost. This new duality of tasks also seems the only possible explanation for the subsequent development of the Soviet Union under Stalin—first his imposition of forced collectivization on the peasants, that new “revolution from above” with its millions of victims, and then the rise of his personal despotism.

Skocpol assumes too easily that Soviet industrialization could not have been achieved without the mass deportations of peasants and the later brutal exploitation of those who remained on the land, and that Bukharin’s alternative policy—increasing production of consumer goods to induce the peasants to raise and sell more produce on the market—could not have worked. The weight of scholarly discussion tends to show that economically it could have worked. But the inadequate grain deliveries of 1927-1929 were seen by Stalin and a growing part of the party as proof of the political ill-will of the peasants, and economic concessions to them were perceived as a danger to the party regime. The “revolution from above” was a political measure designed to break the cohesion and power of new social forces created by economic progress. It is the need for such repeated revolutions from above to keep the process of modernization within the bounds of party control which is the fundamental characteristic of the new type of revolutions—what I have called the totalitarian revolutions of our time.5

In this sense, it can be argued that the Russian Revolution did not end with the consolidation of Stalin’s rule. It continued through his great purge of the 1930s, another revolution from above directed against both the veteran revolutionary cadres and the new technocratic elites, and through his postwar attempts to impose further structural changes on collectivized agriculture. Even Khrushchev’s attempts to achieve, without Stalin’s violent methods, a further reduction of the peasants’ private plots and a mass resettlement in “agrotowns” in 1958 and 1959 were still a part of the same revolutionary process. Only the new party program of 1961 effectively announced its end—and was for that very reason bitterly attacked by the Chinese Communists.

The preceding argument suggests that the Russian Revolution should be understood as consisting of two distinct revolutionary processes—one comparable to the French Revolution until 1921, the other wholly original after that. While the case for thus dividing the Russian Revolution into two processes of different character may not be, at first sight, obvious, Skocpol’s treatment of the Chinese Revolution as a single, continuous phenomenon—including the fall of the Manchu dynasty, the rule of the warlords, the limited reunification of the country by the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, and the rise to power of the Chinese Communists—seems to me wholly artificial.

As Skocpol is well aware, the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 did not lead to a mass movement of the peasants or to a social revolution of any kind, but simply to the decay of the state. The political awakening first of the intelligentsia, and later of parts of other classes, did not occur until after World War I, when feelings of national humiliation and the example of the Soviet revolution encouraged the growth of two competing revolutionary movements: the Kuomintang and the much smaller Communist Party. Their cooperation made possible the national revolution of the middle 1920s, restoring a measure of national unity and stimulating the first real, though in the outcome largely unsuccessful, social revolutionary mass movements in China. Of course, as Skocpol shows, the national unity achieved in the new state was far from perfect and its machinery was never effectively centralized; but that is true of many national revolutions in underdeveloped countries, of which the Kuomintang revolution is an example. At any rate, the cooperation of the two parties came to an end with the Kuomintang’s purge of the Communists in 1927-1928—and with it the national revolution.

The Communists’ part in the national revolution was, of course, an essential preparation for the later Communist revolution. But the real beginnings of the latter can, in my view, only be dated from the gradual rise in the Thirties of an independent Communist leadership under Mao Zedong. For only then did a party of the Bolshevik type, organized for the struggle for national power and enabled by its growing independence from Moscow to concentrate on this goal to the exclusion of international cross-currents, come into existence. While Skocpol fails to recognize the crucial importance of the way the organization of the Chinese Communists became emancipated from Soviet control, she is most enlightening on the peculiar integration of the—largely urban and intellectual—Communist cadres in the villages during the civil war. By mobilizing the peasants both against the landlords and against the Kuomintang forces, they were able to reorganize village society through land reform carried out in cooperation with local peasant leaders, first in a few “Soviet areas,” then in their anti-Japanese bases, and finally after their victory in the whole of mainland China. As a result of these original methods of working in the countryside, even the later introduction of collectivized farming by the ruling Communists was more successful and less costly than it had been in the Soviet Union.

Skocpol does rather less than justice, however, to the decisive effect of the Japanese invasion after 1937 on the Communist victory. While the invasion itself fatally weakened the Nationalist regime, the Japanese policy of mass reprisals drove more and more peasants into the ranks of the Communists who were fighting the Japanese invaders. The “peasant nationalism” described by Chalmers Johnson,6 which Skocpol plays down, was not an ideological movement but a movement of self-defense under Communist leadership.

This Communist revolution by prolonged civil war, then, has almost nothing in common with the French Revolution. It shows important parallels with the Russian Revolution, despite the different conditions and revolutionary strategies. Both were led by a new type of centralized party, which then had to maintain control by repeated revolutions from above. Skocpol argues convincingly that the Communist cadres’ close ties with the villages enabled the Chinese party to collective farming—the first of those revolutions from above—by more “participatory” methods than had been used in Stalinist Russia. But she is far less convincing in suggesting that similar methods were used in such later crises as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Here, her sympathy for Mao—a residual ideological sympathy wholly absent from her treatment of Stalin—seems to have prevented her from seeing either the roots of such an urge for ever new upheavals in the nature of a totalitarian party regime, or the extent of its human and material cost—in economic setbacks, in the temporary destruction of higher education and important fields of research, in the broken lives of an entire young generation—as shown by many recent accounts from China. Above all, she has failed to realize that although the later upheavals were an essential part of the Communist revolution in China, they were different in kind from its earlier phases: the “participatory” communism which made the Chinese revolution differ from Stalin’s bureaucratic and arbitrary regime had largely disappeared—even though Mao relied to the last on totalitarian forms of “mass mobilization” and military force rather than on police rule.

It remains to be seen whether the present phase of “de-Maoization,” with its emphasis on bureaucratic and economic rationality and on the primacy of modernization over utopianism, will bring the revolutionary process to an end. Certainly the Soviet Communist leaders continued to impose revolutionary changes until the industrial economy was much more highly developed than it is today in China. Nor do we know whether the greater relative egalitarianism and concern for the participation of the people, which Skocpol rightly points out as distinctive features of early Chinese communism, will be preserved as the revolution draws to its close.

The criticisms made in this review, then, are ultimately consequences of my conviction that the course of revolutionary processes is never wholly determined by “objective” forces and structures, whether international, economic, social, or political. It is also, like all processes in history, the result of choices made by individual human beings under the influence of their beliefs. A study of revolution that neglects this element of human will and belief, however valuable its keen and careful analysis, cannot wholly escape the reproach of presenting the drama of Hamlet without the prince.

  1. 4

    Crane Brinton, The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History (1930, reprinted by Russell, 1961).

  2. 5

    Richard Lowenthal, “Development versus Utopia in Communist Policy,” in Chalmers Johnson, ed., Change in Communist Systems (Stanford University Press, 1976).

  3. 6

    Chalmers Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1937-1945 (Stanford University Press, 1962).

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