Hello readers! Today I am sharing an interesting article by Abisai Pérez, a dear friend and esteemed colleague. In this post, Abisai explores and compares how land reform, state ideology and violence played an important role in the making of two post-revolutionary societies, The Mexican (1919-1950) and the Chinese (1949-1970). Check it out!
The Making of the Post-Revolutionary State. How similar were the Chinese and Mexican Experiences?
During the 70´s and 80´s social scientists showed a major interest in comparing revolutionary processes from different geographical and temporal frames. For instance, the classic work of Theda Skocpol highlighted the several similarities between the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, by comparing their common causes, the active participation of peasantry, and creation of a centralized state. By recovering Skocpol’s analysis, in the following pages, I will discuss briefly how land reform, state ideology, and violence played an important role in the making of two post-revolutionary societies, the Chinese (1949-1970) and the Mexican (1919-1950). In both countries, the revolutionary elites pursued a massive land reform and used similar strategies to build a strong national state, but the results varied.
The first great similarity between both cases was the mass mobilization of the peasantry to achieve the military triumph and the implementation of the new revolutionary ideological project, which main goal was land reform. In China, since the beginning of the Civil War (1927), Mao Zedong and his followers in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became aware of the political importance of peasantry in the transformation of the nation so they used land reform as an ideological weapon and a war goal. Once Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the CCP started the entire transformation of the countryside by enforcing land through more aggressive strategies. There was one single objective: to convert China into a socialist society. In Mexico, land reform was also the major concern for revolutionary factions when they mobilized thousands of urban workers and peasants to overthrow the autocratic government of General Porfirio Díaz in 1910. But when the general felt, the different revolutionary leaders began to dispute the political hegemony of the country. For this reason, unlike China, in Mexico each revolutionary faction created its land reform project. While some sought conservative measures that barely disrupted the old status of landlords, others proposed radical ways in search of a complete redistribution of the land. When the moderate liberal faction achieved to dominate the political landscape in 1919, Mexican land reform took the shape of a state-controlled redistribution of land under the institution of the ejido—collective land tenure– which was included as one of the major principles of the new Mexican constitution of 1917 (Agrarian Law, article 27). The objective was to re-institute the traditional communal property that was associated with the ancestral indigenous forms of organization, not to create a new institution.
Thus, the first difference between both cases is the ideological background and the strategies that sustained land reform. In the case of China, land reform was not only a matter of transforming material conditions in the Chinese countryside and fostering socialism but mainly was a process to convert simple farmers into class-conscious revolutionary peasants. To achieve that, Mao and the CCP relied on work-teams, that is, groups of lettered individuals trained by the state to classify, organize, and educate peasantry. The work-teams learned Marxist and Maoist theories in urban schools, and then they tried to teach the peasantry the complex ideas of class-struggle and communism. In Mexico, ideology did not drive land reform but was the combination of law interpretation and the willingness of political authorities to enforce it. Although land reform was a constitutional mandate, each Mexican president decided the amount, kind, and size of land to redistribute and what conditions should the peasants follow to obtain an ejido. While in China the ideological trained work-teams were in charge of land reform, in Mexico the provincial governors or caciques –warlords– that emerged from the revolution became the major agents to implement land distribution.
Another common pattern is that land reform in Mexico and China was driven by both violence and negotiation. The Mexican political leaders, in special the presidents, built their political capital based on the mobilization and corporate organization of the peasantry. In addition to the governors, the new peasant associations soon gave birth to political leaders that dominated the political life of the former violent countryside by building social networks based on kinship, corruption, and charismatic leadership. The Mexican president occupied the center of national political life, but local powers also could negotiate their demands by offering their support for electoral campaigns and public demonstrations of popular acclaiming. In China, land reform also depended on negotiation. Cadres, party members and villagers negotiated the consolidation of cooperatives to the extent the new model of production fulfill their economic necessities. The peasants welcomed primary cooperatives –in which the peasants still possessed the land– because the cadres and work teams successfully implemented methods of labor remuneration and rewarding for the villagers. However, when Mao mandated the implementation of advanced cooperatives –the system in which land income depends exclusively on basic needs and labor contribution– peasantry resisted by recurring to traditional forms of resistance and expressing their communal beliefs about what was fair. Again, the state sent team works which, rather than using coercive methods, implemented conciliatory methods with the peasantry. This process showed Mao and his followers that the Marxist theory should not always be applied dogmatically but rather in a pragmatic way. The theory must adapt to reality, not the other way around.
Even though the ideological project formulated by Mao should be understood as a dynamic process that constantly adapted to local realities and the ideological zeal in China contrasted strikingly with Mexico, where there was not an official ideology that dominated the politics of daily life. The concept “revolutionary nationalism” used by many Mexican politicians and intellectuals of the period attempted to agglutinate the values and beliefs of what supposedly was the Mexican nation: pride of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, belief in liberal-economic progress and democracy, and confidence in the executive power as the conciliatory institution that exerted a paternalistic dominion on society. The idea of “revolutionary nationalism” was so broad and susceptible to an interpretation that the Mexican communist intellectuals, marginalized from political life, also used it to legitimize their actions in the public arena. The most illustrative case are found in the artistic production of Mexican muralists (1920’s), who created impressive paintings in the most important buildings of the government to criticize it –paradoxically– by creating visual discourses that combined Marxist symbols with allegories about the Mexican indigenous countryside.
But in China, Marxism and Maoism, as the unique ideology of the Communist Party, could not share space in the public arena with different ideas. Mao believed that the incorporation of Western ideas about democracy or freedom of press could lead to the end of the Chinese socialist state and its conversion into capitalism. For instance, in 1956, the Hungarian revolution (1956) opened a debate among the Party members and the intellectuals about whether reforms should be introduced to eliminate the corruption of cadres and bureaucrats. The first reaction of Mao was the creation of the Hundred Flowers campaign to encourage people to criticize the party and the government. But when hundreds of students began to mobilize and express public rejection of current policies, Mao then stopped to tolerate the lobbying of non-Communists as he thought criticism could instigate the strength and propagation of political dissent. In June 1957, Mao’s speech ‘On the correct handling of the contradictions among people’ initiated the Anti-Rightist campaign to purge supposed “rightists” people that contradicted the state’s communist ideology.
The violence that both states applied to maintain political hegemony also is a common pattern, but the reasons and scale in which each government applied were different. In Mexico, the greatest human losses unfolded during the disputes for the power between different revolutionary caudillos (1911 and 1919). In the aftermaths, only the armed uprising of the Cristeros (1926-1929), peasants that fought against the anticlerical policies of the government, threatened to plunge the country back into chaos and military violence. After suppressing the movement by using military action and also reversing the anticlerical laws, in 1929 president Plutarco Elías Calles founded the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party) to better control popular organizations and possible rivals through the distribution of political offices. Given the party supposedly represented the people and principles of the Mexican Revolution, anyone who took arms against the party was considered an anti-revolutionary. Thus, few regional leaders dared to take up arms against the post-revolutionary government. The state prosecuted and killed anarchists, communists, and fascist through clandestine operations. But violence unfolded in small-scale and mainly in urban centers, where workers attempted to organize unions and popular associations independent from the government.
While the Mexican state monopolized political violence and applied it deliberately, in China Mao used diverse coercive strategies depending on the context and, although Mao mandated the repression, most of the times people reinterpreted the state’s mandates and acted on their own. Two important processes reflect the chaotic ways political violence took place in China. In 1958, China enforced the extraction of resources from the countryside in support of the goal of rapid industrialization in a policy known as the Great Leap Forward. The government mandated the requisition of grain from the peasantry which originated periods of food-shortage and, in consequence, people began to starve. This form of violence was not intentional nor was it driven by the state as a form of punishment, as occurred for instance in the Soviet Union. In China, Mao pressured peasants according his ideological projects –mainly, achieving industrialization through harsh extraction of the countryside– using political violence to legitimize himself and to purge his political enemies of the party.
Another example is the violence that unfolded in the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During this period, Mao encouraged the mass mobilization of population and cadres in a violent struggle to undermine the traditional hierarchies of the Communist Party. Mao believed that these actions would prevent the fall of socialism in China, but most importantly, they will allow him to take control over the children of the privileged cadres who fought in the Chinese Revolution and that now controlled the top brass of national political life. However, although Mao encouraged the violence through public speeches, people embraced the Cultural Revolution to pursue their own interests. In Beijing emerged the Red Guards, groups of young people who considered themselves as “pure” descendants of former revolutionaries –a principle known as the bloodline theory–. Without following government mandates, they unleashed violence against people who had some tie or background to the former landlords and “capitalists.”
As we can appreciate, the Mexican and the Chinese post-revolutionary experiences shared common strategies and objectives when both states dealt with preeminently peasant and illiterate societies. Lacking sophisticated mechanisms of control such as a mass media, or a well-trained bureaucracy, both post-revolutionary states were characterized by the centralization of power in the executive figure and his charisma to mobilize the people. Through violence and negotiation, both states carried out the land reform propagated their new ideological principles. But they also diverged in the flexibility and adaptation to the ideological challenges and political opposition. Although both used violence against the competing political groups that expressed ideas contrary to official, it seems the Mexican state deliberately directed the violence, while in China most of the times Party members, work-teams, cadres and even the people were the main agents of political violence and Mao remained as an instigator. Further research will reveal more interesting elements of comparison between these two important processes of the twentieth century.