Ananth Krishnan reviews From Rebel to Leader: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, by Tony Saich
Harvard Professor Tony Saich’s Definitive History of the Communist Party of China chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the CCP again, disregarding the official linear version
On July 1, the ruling Communist Party in China celebrated its centenary with a big event in Tiananmen Square. Standing at the Tiananmen Gate from where Mao Zedong used to address mass rallies, party leader and secretary general Xi Jinping in an hour-long speech gave the Party the version of its 100 years of history. Xi told the story of rejuvenation and renewal, smoothly en route.
Xi’s speech underscored how important the question of history is to the Party and its legitimacy. This is why, since Xi came to power in 2012, the Party has made it increasingly clear that only his side of the story can be taught in schools and colleges. Those who question it, in Xi’s words, are guilty of “historical nihilism.”
It goes without saying that this is an airbrushed story, tracing a straight line from the founding of the Party to the great event of July 1 – a linear and inevitable story. The history of CPC was anything but, as this new book by Tony Saich reminds us. In From rebel to leader: one hundred years of the Chinese Communist PartyHarvard historian Saich, who has studied and visited China since 1976, provided the definitive account of the rise, fall and rise of the Chinese Communist Party.
Continuity and change
For the centrality of the CCP in the history of modern China, there are oddly not as many books as one might imagine that have delved into the functioning, organization, culture and history of the Party. If the brilliant 2010 book by Richard McGregor The Party: The Secret World of Chinese Communist Leaders, provided a racy and insightful look that is perhaps the definitive account of the CCP reporter, Saich wrote the definitive scientific account of the origins of the Party and the twists and turns of its 100-year history.
The book, says the author, “seeks to describe how a group of young men and a few women, who came together in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the empire and World War I, set in motion a movement that would create the most powerful political organization in the world, overseeing an economy that would rival that of the United States. He describes it as “an extraordinary story of survival, disaster and resurrection”.
The strength of the book lies in its detail, telling the story in 560 pages, and in its impartiality, viewing the Party’s successes and mistakes – especially the monumental disasters of the Mao era – with the selfless eyes of a scholar. Three broad themes emerge from the book, each highlighting key tensions that defined the Party’s existence and explained its survival – tensions that each generation of leaders struggled with and strove to resolve.
The first is about continuity and change. The CCP, as Saich writes, came to power “claiming that it represented a radical break with the past and a new tradition of proletarian internationalism”. Yet as “the strength of revolutionary legitimacy waned,” the Party “began to present itself as the successor and heir to Chinese tradition.” Not only that, as the only legitimate heir to Chinese tradition. This is used both to justify autocracy and to lump together any criticism of the Party as being not anti-party but anti-national.
The notions of democracy and federalism that marked her early years and brought her public support were quickly abandoned as she transitioned from rebel to leader. It also meant the end of the spirit of independent intellectual inquiry which animated its founders. Mao in 1942 described the correct role of intellectuals, writers and artists – which was to serve the Party – another constant that has not changed. For many, the revolution ended up replacing “one form of domination by another”.
The second tension lies in its organization. What the Party calls “democratic centralism” has been the only ideology that endures from Mao to Deng and Xi, yet each generation has seen a shifting dynamic between a “core” and the collective.
Saich says there is currently no great “pressure from below” to push the Party to reform – it has a strong hold on the base, has decimated civil society, absorbed all opposition sites possible, including the private sector, and retains broad public support. through decades of growth. Yet it is the unity of the elites that is the big unanswered question, even in the Xi era when Party loyalty is the watchword, given the persistence of factional structures. Despite all the talk about Party unity, the reality even in the Xi era is that the Party operates on factions and personal networks. Saich shows how the factional structure has existed from the start, and this dynamic provokes repeated political struggles. There is no certainty that even Xi’s buildup of power ended this dynamic.
Adapt to survive
The third is the dynamic between adaptability or pragmatism and ideology. What does CPC actually mean? Many of its over 90 million members today would struggle to offer a consistent answer. As Saich writes, many join the Party today to advance their careers and not out of a sense of mission. The Party still confesses by Marxism-Leninism, but recognized that ideology is no longer a sufficient link for its legitimacy. He thus “resorted to nationalism and claims to be the legitimate heir of the Chinese tradition”. Saich also sees how the Party manages the economy and the environment as two key areas in determining its future legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Indeed, it is pragmatism, not ideology, that helped the CCP survive. The fact that she indigenized her Communist revolution, he argues, allowed a certain degree of pragmatism and helped her avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. The indigenous nature of the revolution “allowed the CCP greater flexibility with domestic politics, but also informed its world position.” If there is one fault to be made with this book, it is in its somewhat fleeting treatment of foreign affairs and the Party’s vision of its place in the world (the description of India as an “ally” of the United will seem shocking to Indian readers). This is, however, a small quibble as the emphasis is clearly on domestic issues, and here Saich undoubtedly succeeds in providing a rich and detailed account that may well end up as the definitive guide to how the party at power in China is where it is today. .
From rebel to leader: one hundred years of the Chinese Communist Party; Tony Saich, Harvard University Press / Harper, 3,050.