Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?

It is likely that, even now, many people in America and Britain still hold to the simple formula that people are good and communism is evil. And, just as good cannot support evil, people cannot support communism. Therefore any political movement that appears to be popular and communist cannot really exist. It can be one or the other, but not both. Any other explanation, however cumbersome or implausible, is preferable to this “impossible” conjunction.

Thus the Soviet Revolution is seen to be the work of German imperialists and the Chinese Revolution as the result of Russian expansionism. The first stage of the Vietnamese fight for independence is believed to have been won by Chinese aid, and the second is supposed to have been fomented and organized from the outside, this time from an entity—North Vietnam—made foreign for the purpose.

In the Chinese case the evident independence of the local Communist leaders rapidly made the explanation of Russian expansionism hard to accept. Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, C. L. Sulzberger and other cold war dinosaurs claimed for a time that China was a Soviet satellite and was about to be partitioned. However, anyone with any pretensions to scholarship or knowledge of the situation found it impossible to maintain this line and a new, comforting, but far more plausible, explanation was developed. Communism was now seen to have conquered China, not through Soviet invasion but on the heels of the Japanese. W. W. Rostow wrote in The Prospects for Communist China:

The K.M.T. [Kuomintang] made important and now often forgotten progress over the decade 1927-1937…. Progress was made in agriculture, industry, transport and public health…. In evaluating the weaknesses of K.M.T. rule over this period it must be borne in mind that internally the Communists were never crushed, and difficulties with warlords persisted; and that, externally, Chiang Kaishek enjoyed peace only for the period 1929-1931. In 1931 the Japanese moved into Manchuria; in 1932 Shanghai was attacked and from that time down to 1937 when full fledged invasion began, North China was progressively infiltrated.

This hypothesis that the K.M.T. were making progress, and might well have succeeded politically and economically had it not been for Japanese interference and invasion, has been widely accepted and used even by reputable scholars. The other half of the explanation is that in the political complications of the anti-Japanese United Front of Nationalists and Communists and the chaos of the war itself, by using devious political means and guerrilla tactics the Communists were able to increase their strength dramatically. Rostow wrote:

In 1937 they held some 30,000 square miles embracing 2 million people: in 1945 they held some 300,000 square miles containing 95 million people or between 20 or 30% of the Chinese population. The Chinese Red Army decimated in 1934-35 numbered about 900,000 in 1945.

The most sophisticated elaboration of this thesis was made in Professor Chalmers Johnson’s Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power.1 This book came out in 1962 and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.