Revolution and the People in Russia and China. A Comparative History

Smith, Steve A.
The Wiles Lectures
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Felix Wemheuer, Institut für Ostasienwissenschaften, Universität Wien

In the 1970s and early 1980s, many Western scholars believed that the “Chinese way of socialism” would be fundamentally different from that of the Soviet Union. As a result of this paradigm, only a few experts in Soviet and Chinese studies carried out comparative research during that time. In the last years, however, comparative research on the Russian and Chinese revolutions has received more attention. Steve A. Smith is one of the few Western senior historians who are able to work with original Russian and Chinese language sources. He published several monographs on the labour movements of both countries. His new book, "Revolution and the People in Russia and China", is mainly based on his earlier research. Furthermore, it provides an excellent overview of the latest research methods in the fields of modern Russian and Chinese history. Smith focuses on the question of how the social identities of peasants changed after they migrated to St Petersburg from the 1880s to 1917 and to Shanghai from 1900 to the 1940s. Against this background, Smith analyzes the rise of nationalist and class consciousness in the last decade before the revolutions. He argues in the introduction that the old paradigm of proletarianization is not able to explain the complexities of these social changes. The “multiplicity of the transformation in social indentify” can only be understood, if the impact of mass media, consumer culture, trade unions and guilds is taken into consideration. Focusing on the transformations of social identities is a new angle to explore the transformation of the working class. The rest of the book follows this approach that is outlined in the introduction.

According to Smith, class contractions were less polarized in Shanghai than in St Petersburg. In Shanghai, the peasant workers still had strong ties to their villages and the labour movement was more nationalist than in Russia, especially during the powerful strike movement of 1925. However, Smith points out that the Bolsheviks and the Chinese communists combined the rhetoric of class and national salvation successfully. In this context, the rhetoric of class – at least in popular quarters – was rooted more in popular sentiments against “those on top” than in an orthodox Marxist framework. In the strong chapter on gender identities, Smith shows that important parts of the new workforce in the factories were female. For the Bolsheviks and the Communist and Nationalists in China, the “new woman” became a symbol of the revolution and new era. The oppression and exploitation of women in foreign-owned factories were used to attack imperialism in Shanghai. However, gender tensions and the fight against sexual harassment among the working class were not a priority of the Chinese and Russian communists.

In the last chapter, Smith describes the socialist systems in both countries as a “variety of modernity.” Communist modernity continued the process of structural differentiation such as industrialization, urbanization, the greater penetration of society by the bureaucratic state, secularization, the rise of the welfare state and so on. The revolutions were directed against backwardness, but somehow they were also trapped in the traditions of their countries. Smith argues that the common view that describes the Russian revolution as urban and the Chinese as rural is too simple. Revolts of peasants and soldiers played an important role in the context of the fall of the old regime in Russia. Furthermore, the victory of the Chinese communists was, according to Smith, based on a broad coalition of peasants, workers, left-wing intellectuals and parts of the urban middle classes. Despite the fact that the urban labour movement was seriously harmed by the “white terror” of Guomindang in 1927 and in the early 1930s, the workers of Shanghai played an important role in the Communist resistance against the Japanese aggression of the mid-1930s and in the Civil War after 1946.

"Revolution and the People in Russia and China" can be warmly recommended as a textbook for undergraduate classes in Chinese and Russian history or classes on the history of migration and urbanization. It is a good start for comparative research of the two most important revolutions in the 20th century. However, it must be said that the title of the book promises too much. While St Petersburg played a central role in the Socialist revolution, the same could not be said about Shanghai. This major industrial city was only “liberated” by the People’s Liberation Army in May of 1949. The “anvil of victory” of the Chinese revolution was Manchuria. After reading the book, the reader still wonders whether or not these rural migrants in Shanghai and St Petersburg played any important role in the revolution and the communist movements. Smith’s combination of a Marxist approach of class with post-modernist concepts of identity might contribute to an understanding of the complexities of the social transformations in the last decades of the empires. However, the question of why these revolutions took place in China and Russia is neither raised nor answered. It is surprising that the Communist parties are mentioned in Smith’s argument, but do not play a major role. Compared to the classic comparative studies on revolutions such as Moore’s "The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy" (1966), Wolf’s "Peasants Wars of the Twentieth Century" (1969) or Skocpol’s "State and Revolutions" (1979) 1, Smith’s book is written in a more careful way and it is also less ambitious. For better or for worse, it seems that Revolution and the People in Russia and China is not aimed at adding a new “master narrative” to the world history of revolutions. However, it is a solid comparison of the identities of rural migrants in St Petersburg and Shanghai in the last decade before the victory of the Socialist revolutions.

1 Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making World, Boston 1966; Theda Skocpol, State and Revolutions. A comparative analysis of France, Russia and China, Cambridge 1979; Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, New York 1969.

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