Peasants Without the Party: Grass-roots Movements in Twentieth-Century China, by Lucien Bianco. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. xxvii + 309 pp. US$64.95 (hardcover), US$26.95 (paperback).
The thirteen essays in this book are the product of more than three decades of research on the recent history of China's peasantry by one of the most eminent scholars in the field. Almost all of the essays were previously published in journals or edited books. Ten of the thirteen first appeared in the 1990s, and the other three in the 1970s. Cumulatively, they are testimony to a remarkable level of research energy and virtuosity. They demonstrate the impressive breadth of enquiry and analytic astuteness that characterize all of Bianco's writings.
Many readers will be familiar with at least some of Bianco's key ideas, particularly his revisionist interpretations of the peasant movements of China's Republican period (see, for example, The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13, 1986). Howver, given the persistence of idealized representations of China's "peasant revolution" in a number of textbooks and scholarly studies, his arguments bear emphatic repetition.
Bianco has long insisted that China's peasants were far from the stuff of which revolutions are made and, more contentiously, that the Communists succeeded in changing very few of the peasants they mobilized. Pre-Communist peasant movements were stirred by local, concrete issues. They were reactive and defensive, never proactive and progressive. Any class consciousness was invariably eclipsed by "the internal solidarity of social heterogenous groups" (p. 199). Community-based anti-tax actions far outnumbered, by about seven to one, group actions by aggrieved tenants; any solidarity among "exploited tenants was less acute, widespread and compelling than competitiveness among prospective tenants" for scarce rental land (p. 136). The great majority of peasant movements, therefore, were characterized by vertical, not horizontal, solidarity. "What was striking about pre-war or for that matter traditional Chinese peasants was not their revolutionary propensity but rather their capacity for endurance" (p. 240).
The Communist Party therefore had to try "to initiate a peasant movement without peasants" (p. 233). The attitudes and mentalities evident among the "peasants without the Party" explain why rural folk in the Party's wartime base areas were reluctant and slow to respond to Party mobilizations. These peasants of the 1930s were certainly not nationalists (p. 233), and the Communists demanded a level of risk-taking that looked foolhardy to the great majority of villagers. When first published in 1990, the essay that became Chapter 11 suggested that the Party's painstaking work and its shrewd exploitation of social cleavages gradually eroded the "initial peasant reserve". By 1999, however, new research on the wartime bases had persuaded Bianco that the process of winning peasant compliance and cooperation had been short and brutal, not gradual, and it was won by intimidation more than by persuasion (pp. 242-43). To explain the Party's success, he writes, "one need only explain the growth of its power", not the support it won from the peasantry (p. 239). When contrasts are made with the Kuomintang regime (1928-49), it must be conceded that the Communists did indeed establish a "special link" with the peasants (p. 45). But the Chinese revolution was a "peasant revolution" only in the sense that "by their weight and relative inertia, the rural masses continue to exert decisive pressure" (p. 50).
Bianco's primary focus is on peasant movements in the first half of the twentieth century. Access to the Republican Archives in Nanjing and the burgeoning production of historical materials by Mainland presses since the 1970s have enabled him to build on, expand and deepen research done in the 1960s. He has integrated this primary research with wide reading of the secondary literature on rural change in post-1949 China and on rural insurgency and popular protest in European contexts (particularly France and England), and he has read practically all of the important theoretical literature on peasantries, peasant protest and popular movements. …