The title of my talk today is borrowed from Leon Trotsky's famous book, Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? Writing in 1936, Trotsky described the Soviet Union under Stalin as having lost its revolutionary spirit to an emerging bureaucracy. He argued that another revolution was required in Russia - this time to oust the Communist Party bureaucrats. As Trotsky put it, "Will the bureaucrat devour the workers' state, or will the working class clean up the bureaucrat? Thus stands the question upon whose decision hangs the fate of the Soviet Union."
I first read Trotsky's book when I was a student at Hobart and William Smith, some thirty years after it had been written. (I read it, I might note, not as a class assignment but in conjunction with an informal campus study group that some of us who were opposed to the War in Vietnam had organized.) I found Trotsky's book an immensely interesting work because it seemed to articulate concerns that applied not only to the USSR, but to other post-revolutionary societies as well. China was just then in the throes of its "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." The Chinese Revolution, and the Vietnamese Revolution modeled upon it, appeared to an idealistic young American college student to hold the promise of avoiding the bureaucratism and paralysis that had derailed the Russian Revolution. In launching the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao seemed to have found a way to combat official ossification by stirring up idealistic young Chinese students - known as Red Guards - to attack his own party and government and thereby keep the revolutionary spirit alive. This, it occurred to me at the time, was not entirely different from the arguments of Thomas Jefferson (whose writings I did read as part of the regular class curriculum!), calling for a popular uprising every generation in our own country to prevent the government from becoming tyrannical and out of touch with its people. As Jefferson wrote: "What country can preserve its liberties if the rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take up arms . . . I hold that a rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical."
It was largely because the Chinese revolution seemed at that time to offer a beacon of hope, not only for Vietnam but even for America's own political progress, that I (like several of the other China scholars assembled here today, I suspect) decided to embark on the study of Chinese history and politics. Much of my research from that time on has focused on the Chinese revolution - its causes and its consequences. The book I am currently writing, and from which I will draw my remarks today, is titled Patrolling the Revolution: Worker Militias and State-Building in Modern China. The study uses the fate of revolutionary militias as a window for exploring changes in state-society relations, primarily in China but also in other post-revolutionary countries.
Militias have been a principal vehicle of revolutionary struggle from the Massachusetts Minutemen, to the French sans-culottes and National Guard, to the Russian and Chinese Red Guards, to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard (or Pasdaran). In all of these cases, militias not only played a key role in winning the revolutionary war, but after military victory they were assigned the even more important duty of "patrolling the revolution" - or ensuring that the principles of the revolution were not betrayed under the new political regime. Among the many criticisms that Trotsky leveled at Stalin was his neglect of the Russian militia, so that it no longer served as an "army of the proletarian dictatorship."
Trotsky's ideas about a workers' militia came in large part from Karl Marx's writings on the Paris Commune. Marx was thrilled by the Commune of 1871 because, in his (mis)interpretation, it represented a new form of governance generated by working-class insurgency. As Marx stated famously in The Civil War in France, "Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!" Central to Marx's understanding of the Commune was the institution of a working-class militia in promoting and preserving political change.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 departed in many respects from classical Marxist doctrine, but it was marked nonetheless by the substantial participation of armed workers. Voluntary bands of worker militias, known as Red Guards, were a key ingredient in the Bosheviks' October Revolution. Thus it is hardly surprising that, since its inception, the Bolshevik-inspired Chinese Communist Party devoted great attention to the issue of proletarian power. Despite the awkward fact that their own victory would depend primarily on peasant - rather than on working-class - support, the Chinese Communists emphasized the signal importance of the proletariat in enabling and sustaining their revolution. In confirmation of this exalted status, workers were assigned key responsibilities as guardians of the revolution. Nowhere is this clearer than in the institution of worker militias, a case study of which forms the empirical core of the book I'm writing. The study focuses on the city of Shanghai, both because of the special significance of that city in the annals of the Chinese revolution and because of the exceptional richness and accessibility of its archival collections.
Students of Chinese history have no doubt encountered the worker militias in narratives of the White Terror of 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek and his henchmen slaughtered countless of their number in a brutal effort to rid Shanghai and other cities of leftist influence. Even non-China specialists may be familiar with the militias from Andre Malraux's poignant (and only thinly fictionalized) depiction of their role in his classic novel, Man's Fate. The bloody demise of the worker militias in the spring of 1927 precipitated the Communists' hasty flight to the countryside, converting their revolution from an urban to a rural movement. But although the proletarian patrols make few other appearances in our history texts, they outlived the White Terror by many years. Indeed, they have continued to play a critical role during turning points in China's revolution right down to the present day. The swift Communist take-over of the cities in the late 1940s, the Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries Campaign in the early 1950s, the ascendancy of rebel workers during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the repression of the student protest movement in 1989 were all facilitated by worker militias. Today, the transformation of this once proud revolutionary institution into a casualty of economic reform symbolizes the dismal current condition of China's industrial proletariat.
One reason the militias merit attention is thus that they are of substantial historical significance. They serve, moreover, as a revealing prism through which to view the dynamics of state-society relations in China (and other revolutionary settings as well). Although originally an impromptu workers' protest tactic, militias came to be embraced by all manner of political authorities to serve their own statist designs.
My study chronicles the development of revolutionary militias, especially among the workers of Shanghai, from the May Fourth Movement of 1919 to the contemporary scene. Here let me take a few minutes to go over a thumbnail sketch of that history with you. The militias (known originally as "pickets" or jiuchadui) began as spontaneous efforts of workers, during strike actions, to prevent strike-breakers from crossing picket lines. In the May Fourth Movement of 1919, worker pickets joined students in mounting massive demonstrations against foreign imperialism. Soon after the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, the Communists began to arm these picket units in the tradition of the worker militias of the Paris Commune and the October Revolution. The militias spearheaded a series of Communist-sponsored urban uprisings in the 1920s. Fear of these proletarian forces was a major reason that Chiang Kai-shek decided to suppress the Communists in such bloody fashion in the spring of 1927. Surprisingly, however, as soon as Chiang Kai-shek seized political power, his Nationalist regime established its own worker militias as an important means of state control. Throughout the duration of the Nationalists' rule, 1927-49, they relied upon worker militias, which operated in close collaboration with military intelligence forces, to uncover and arrest workers and others suspected of Communist sympathies. The activities of the Nationalists' militias created an extremely dangerous situation for the Shanghai Communist Underground, about whose survival Provost Stranahan has written so incisively. Operating in these difficult circumstances, the Communists decided to infiltrate the enemy Nationalist forces in order to strengthen their own position. Thanks in part to the successful infiltration of Nationalist-sponsored militias, the Communists were able to mount a remarkably smooth and swift takeover of China's major cities in 1949.
In establishing their own political system in the early 1950s, the Communists drew not only on the Soviet model but also on the state-building experiences of their Nationalist rivals. Just as the Nationalists had used worker militias to target Communists, so now the Communists assigned worker militias the task of smoking out and suppressing "counter-revolutionaries" -- or those whose sympathies lay with the former Nationalist regime. Their assignment was greatly complicated, however, by the fact that the Communists had so thoroughly penetrated the Nationalists during the course of their revolutionary struggle. Who were the real revolutionaries? Who were the counter-revolutionaries? These questions were not easily answered, and they contributed to the confused violence of the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards attacked former members of the Communist Underground for having betrayed the revolution.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) saw a concerted effort by radical leaders, based in Shanghai, to breathe new life into the institution of worker militias. At the close of the CR, the Shanghai Militia was a powerful and well-armed force of some 3 million workers. The militiamen were a feisty lot, who often likened themselves to the Paris Communards. When their radical patrons were arrested soon after Chairman Mao's death, the Shanghai Militia very nearly mounted an armed insurrection to counter what they claimed was a betrayal of Mao's revolution. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the urban militia was thoroughly reorganized with the assistance of military and public security agencies. It was this reorganized workers' militia, 100,000 strong, that suppressed the student protests in Shanghai in June of 1989 on orders from the Shanghai government. The institution of workers' militias had now come full circle - from an ally of student protesters during the May Fourth Movement of 1919 to a vehicle for suppressing student demonstrations, 70 years later.
In recent days, the bankruptcy of so many state-owned enterprises has resulted in a severe scaling back of this once proud revolutionary institution. Since the 1950s, militiamen had been drawn from the ranks of state factory workers. In Shanghai, the militia - now renamed the Peace Preservation Corps [baoandui] - employs laid-off workers, armed only with clubs, to conduct neighborhood crime patrols under police supervision. When I conducted an interview about the contemporary militia at a district police station in Shanghai, I asked the official in charge of militia training whether the instruction program included any lessons in the revolutionary history of the workers' militia. He paused for a moment, smiled ruefully, and then shook his head "No," he replied. "No mention of that 'glorious workers' revolutionary tradition.' It would be too dangerous to teach workers about that."
This has been a bare-bones summary of a several-hundred-page account of the worker militias, and I'd be happy to try to answer questions on the details if they happen to be of interest to anyone besides me. But I'd like to use the remainder of my time to speak to some of the more general issues raised by this history, particularly as they relate to the question posed in the title of this talk: revolution betrayed?
When we survey the past century of revolution in China, observing the devolution of the worker militias from a means of popular insurrection to an instrument of government repression, should we conclude - with Trotsky - that this is yet another "revolution betrayed?" I must admit that had I known back in my college days what I know now about the course of the Chinese Revolution, I would certainly not have been so enamored of it. In fact, I probably would not have gone into the field of Chinese studies at all. But that does not mean that I now see the Chinese experience as a simple case of "revolution betrayed." Revolutions, I have come to appreciate, are protracted processes whose meaning is subject to frequent reinterpretation and whose endpoint and outcome are difficult to gauge. When Andre Malraux asked China's Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution, Zhou is said to have replied, "It's too soon to tell." If nearly two centuries did not afford sufficient hindsight for the Chinese Premier to pass judgment on the French Revolution, then surely a definitive evaluation of his own revolution is premature.
One reason why it is difficult to determine how far a revolution has strayed from its principles is that the principles themselves are open to debate. Revolutionary leaders hold varying ideas - differing both from one another and over time - about their objectives. And the millions of ordinary people who join a revolutionary struggle hold yet other perspectives on what they may be hoping to accomplish. In the case of China, both the Communists and the Nationalists considered themselves revolutionaries. Within both the Communist and the Nationalist camps, there was a remarkably wide range of views about their revolutionary mission. Some Communist leaders promoted worker militias primarily as an expression of class struggle - aiming to bring about a dictatorship of the proletariat, whereas others came to see militias as an expression of national unity - to be directed against warlords or foreign invaders more than against the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the rank and file workers who enlisted in these militias often did so not because they saw themselves as agents of proletarian dictatorship or national liberation but because militia service offered food rations. Revolution may not have been a dinner party, as Chairman Mao put it famously, but to many militiamen it was at least a meal.
The story of worker militias in Shanghai is one of unintended consequences, of the gap between Marx's political theory and China's historical reality. The gulf separating political vision from political practice is often attributed to "objective" conditions beyond the control of either revolutionary visionaries or their followers. An equally compelling explanation, however, lies in the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries themselves. Revolutionary theories have foundered not simply because of structural barriers, but perhaps even more importantly because people have found in such ideas and the institutions they have engendered an attractive means of pursuing alternative agendas.
The concept of an armed citizenry, whether justified as a vehicle of class revolution (a la Marx) or as a guarantee against tyranny (a la Jefferson), has occupied a central place in modern political thought. The practical consequences of these conceptions, however, have often strayed far from the ideals of those who recommended them in the first place. Just as we grapple in the United States with the appalling crime rates attendant upon our revolutionary right to bear arms, so the Chinese have seen their proletarian patrols devolve into instruments of terror in service to one political interest or another.
Many of the disagreements among revolutionary actors revolve around the question of revolutionary citizenship, or the participation of certain elements of society as the backbone and beneficiaries of struggle. Founding decisions about revolutionary citizenship have a profound effect on the legitimation and distribution of power both during and after the revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary citizenship may be based upon a number of criteria, of which perhaps the most common are class (membership in a particular socioeconomic group), community (residence in a particular territory), or creed (faith in a particular set of religious or ideological beliefs). These conceptions are highly fluid and subject to competing interpretations: Should class be determined by one's relationship to the means of production or by one's revolutionary consciousness? And which class, or coalition of classes, should play the vanguard role at which stage in the revolutionary process? Should community be delimited by one's neighborhood, city, or nation? And is local community more or less capable of inspiring revolutionary action than national or international citizenship? Is one's creed best judged by one's revolutionary behavior? Or are true believers inherently revolutionary regardless of their behavior? Any actual revolutionary process reflects complex and changing conceptions of the criteria for inclusion and exclusion, for praise and blame.
The Chinese revolution was based on an uneasy amalgam of contradictory conceptions of citizenship. The principal criterion was of course class. As Marxist-Leninists, China's revolutionary leaders stressed the salience of class - the proletariat augmented by the peasantry - as revolutionary agent. But class was not the only basis of revolutionary citizenship. As nationalists, the Chinese Communists emphasized the significance of community - the Chinese people as a whole - in combating imperialism. As Maoists, they stressed adherence to creed - or Mao Zedong Thought - as the key criterion for admission to the revolutionary ranks. The complex history of the revolution, which unfolded in vastly dissimilar settings over a protracted period, fostered competing claims to authenticity and legitimacy that would fuel political struggles in China for generations. Whether conducted as behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvers or as public brawls among the populace at large, disagreements over the composition and authority of the militia were at heart battles over the meaning of revolutionary citizenship itself: Who would serve as protagonists and protectors of the revolutionary struggle? And who would savor the fruits of political victory?
To assign revolutionary membership on the basis of class, community, creed or some other criterion is at the same time to lay a foundation for state-society relations in the post-revolutionary era. The fateful choice of China's revolutionaries - for it was a choice - to adopt a Bolshevik model privileging "the proletariat," had implications that long outlived the 1949 divide. Like the Russians whose revolution they so admired, the Chinese Communists have grappled with the legacy of "class struggle" for generations. Yet they have done so in ways that depart dramatically from their Soviet instructors. The stark differences between these two (class-based) Communist societies, as well as the even greater differences that separate them from the post-revolutionary (community-based) democracies of France and the United States, or for that matter the undemocratic (creed-based) Islamic Republic of Iran, are closely connected to earlier determinations of revolutionary citizenship. In each of these cases, moreover, revolutionary militias provide an illuminating point of comparison. As an institution charged with patrolling the revolution, citizen militias mirror the principles of inclusion and exclusion upon which alternative revolutionary edifices are constructed. Although not all revolutionary militias endure, their fate - whether long or short - tells us much about the larger movements that gave birth to them.
By way of comparison, let me offer a very brief overview of the history of another revolutionary militia - our own. Whereas the Chinese privileged class over other possible parameters of revolutionary citizenship, in America community has been the chief basis of citizenship. The contribution of the colonial militias to the American Revolution imbued among Americans a lasting respect for volunteer military service, recruited from and answerable to local communities. The celebration of the homegrown citizen-soldier and the suspicion of military professionalism was a strong current in American political thought from the colonial period on. Although the militia were often decried (especially by advocates of the Continental Army) as untrained, undisciplined and unreliable, their contribution proved critical to the course of the revolutionary war. While the adoption of the Constitution and George Washington's assumption of the presidency ensured that the new country would have a permanent national military force, the Federalists failed to gain full control over the state militias. A key ingredient in Thomas Jefferson's presidential victory of 1800 was a widespread preference among the electorate for the traditional republican concept of defense, the citizen militia, in contrast to the military professionalism advocated by the Federalists.
Half a century later, the Civil War further ennobled the American image of the citizen soldier. In the Civil War, the state militias went to the colors at once. After the war, nearly all states encouraged the formation of volunteer uniformed companies, which came to be known collectively as the National Guard. Presenting itself as the institutional embodiment of the citizen soldier, the National Guard acquired a permanency never before seen in American militia history.
The states, having made a substantial financial and administrative commitment to the National Guard, assigned to it a wide range of domestic responsibilities. As William Riker has shown, the rise of the National Guard paralleled a growing wave of civil disorder in late nineteenth-century America. Throughout this period, guardsmen were deployed repeatedly as strike breakers in industrial conflicts. Although the twentieth century saw a gradual decline in labor dispute interventions, the National Guard was frequently called upon to quell urban riots and anti-war protests. At the same time, the Guard became increasingly subject to federal, rather than state, direction.
The federal government's incorporation of the National Guard did not settle the militia question for many Americans, however. The Second Amendment, which guaranteed a citizen's right to keep and bear arms on grounds that "a well regulated militia" was "necessary to the security of a free state," continued to inspire a wide range of private militia operations. Over the years, many a vigilante outfit has cited this constitutional provision as justification for its existence. In the nineteenth century, volunteer posses were formed to control unruly workers, intimidate abolitionists -- or, conversely, to thwart enforcement of the fugitive slave law. And the twentieth century saw a resurgence of independent local militias that continues to this day.
Contemporary militias in the U.S. generally insist that their existence conforms with the principles of the American Revolution. In the eyes of their constituents, militias stand as guardians of local community against an oppressive federal government. The literature produced by these groups, reprehensible as much of it is, nevertheless makes frequent reference to an eighteenth-century American republicanism that saw the armed citizenry as a people's best defense against tyranny. Thomas Jefferson is quoted with particular favor.
The contemporary American militia movement is usually said to have begun in 1961, when Robert DePugh -- a member of the John Birch Society -- founded a new Minuteman militia organization in California. DePugh's Minutemen popularized the idea that the Second Amendment permitted individual groups of Americans to take up arms against a global Communist conspiracy. Fear of Chinese incursions runs through the history of the contemporary American militia movement. DePugh's rationale for founding the Minutemen was to fight against what he claimed was a massive gathering of Chinese Communists just south of the Mexican border, poised for attack on the U.S.! More recently, the Idaho-based United States Militia Association, founded in 1994, issued a brochure warning American gun owners that they would soon be disarmed by Chinese police.
A leader of the Missouri 51st Militia - named for the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas - when asked by a British researcher to define a militia, answered this way: "It's an armed citizen who's willing to stand up for his community . . . Now if we named our organization anything other than a militia then we probably wouldn't be legal. And that goes back to what our forefathers did in the early making of this country - they did it with a militia group." He went on to say, "We hear things all the time and it's pretty amazing. We hear that 'Chinese militia were accused of killing people in Tiananmen Square.' But there's no militia in China. There couldn't be because a militia is an armed citizen."
While the answer of the Missouri militiaman betrays a parochial understanding of the meanings of citizenship, it also highlights the continuing connection between founding revolutionary ideas and contemporary political debates. The question of what constitutes the relevant community to which the armed citizen owes utmost allegiance - neighborhood, state or nation - remains a live issue for many Americans. And the fact that ordinary citizens enjoy easy access to firearms has rendered this argument of more than academic concern.
A survey of the militia movement in America might lead one to conclude that ours, too, is a revolution betrayed. The official expression of our revolutionary militia, the U.S. National Guard, has been deployed in controversial operations from Kent State in 1970 to Iraq today. And our unofficial militia legacy lives on in right-wing extremist groups that some of us see as an utter travesty of our revolutionary tradition. But in order to avow that we have here a case of revolution betrayed, Americans would first have to agree on just what the American Revolution stands for. Fortunately, it is impossible to reach such a consensus. I say "fortunately," for if there were such a consensus then our revolution would indeed be dead - and thus betrayed. Only as long as we still argue passionately about the role of our citizen armies, can the revolutionary promise of a radically improved relationship between state and society be kept alive.
Revolution Betrayed? The Fate of Revolutionary Militias in China (and Other Post-revolutionary Societies)
April 11, 2003