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Nigel Harris

Confucian Confusion

(Spring 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.20, Spring 1965, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Leadership in Communist China
John Wilson Lewis
Cornell University Press/OUP, 40s.

The subject of leadership in general is one of great difficulty – for obvious reasons, the complex of common-sense and mythology is here at its most fetishised. Disentangling the significance of particular external conditions, of personalities and leadership organisation (separating the last two again into ‘independent factors’ and the product of peculiar conditions, both contemporary and historical) is an enterprise full of pitfalls as the awful distortions embodied in the loose use of the word ‘charismatic’ demonstrate. (The evolution of the use of this word is itself worth examination; intended in part to describe popular legitimisation of a special sort of leadership in transitional periods and carrying magical connotations, it is now used to ascribe magic to any successful leader anywhere at any time.) Leadership in China multiplies the problems indefinitely since the evidence is extremely sparse and there are no means available to check hypothesis on the fine distinctions. Mr Lewis has gathered together what evidence is available, supplemented by refugee interviews, and he discusses at length the evolution of the Chinese leadership’s rationale for itself, although he is not so good at deriving the nature and explanation of Chinese leadership implicit in its role before 1949 – naturally, he tends to share some of the assumptions of the Chinese leaders about the general nature of leadership so that he cannot prise away the deeper elements of the myth by counterposing it to the reality of popular interests. Maoism is different from Stalinism but its precise differences are difficult to evaluate – a flat recitation of the stress on continuous mass participation, the flexibility and pragmatism (which usually means rightish deviationism) of policy, the periodic institutionalisation of inner-party struggle, the recruitment of any local leadership elements almost regardless of political considerations, the vast size of the party, the mild use of the purge to maintain conformity, and so on, the mere list does not definitively differentiate Maoist practice from Stalinist. Key differences between China and the Soviet Union explain much difference in stress, but ultimately do not measure how far the CCP has succeeded in spanning the class gap, has succeeded in the total identification of mass interests with its own from the point of view of the average Chinese. The evidence on disaffection is too thin in: China proper or comes from too suspect sources (viz. Taipeh) to help much.

To the rationale of leadership, Mr Lewis adds what is known of party organisation down to the commune level, of growth in membership and social distribution, and so on. There is a little lacing of fashionable sociological jargon and the happy game of seeing how Confucian Maoism really is, but in general the work is serious. For reasons implicit in the subject, the work cannot be definitive but it raises topics of interest (for example, the reinfiltration of ruling family systems into the commune leadership) even if there is not much new light to be shed (for example, on the rumoured struggle between Chou’s State-military faction and the Teng party group). In general, the book’s merit is to collect much useful information in one place.

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Last updated: 14 April 2010