M. Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin, and the United States.
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). 255 pp.
Michael M. Sheng's Battling Western Imperialism is a path-breaking contribution to the "new Cold War history" (to borrow a term from the historian John Lewis Gaddis). One of the book's strengths is the impressive documentary evidence it marshals in support of its arguments. Sheng makes extensive and critical use of Chinese-language sources, as well as some Russian-language materials. Based on the insights he gains from this wealth of new documentation, Sheng writes a grand narrative of the relationship between Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Josif Stalin's Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. This narrative provides new ways of understanding the central role that Marxism-Leninism played in shaping the orientation of the CCP's foreign policy under Mao.
Battling Western Imperialism challenges the Maoist myth (created by Mao himself after Stalin's death and perpetuated by many scholars both in China and in the West) that the Chinese revolution developed in constant resistance to Stalin's mistaken interference and domination, and that the pre-1949 Mao-Stalin relationship was primarily confrontational. Sheng convincingly argues that the reality was far more complicated. He shows that in the 1927-1935 period, when Mao's rural-based revolution was still in its formative stage, support from Moscow not only helped legitimize the strategy of promoting revolution among the Chinese peasantry, but also enhanced Mao's reputation and power as a prominent member of the CCP's highest elite, paving the way for him to emerge as the Party's top leader in the late 1930s. During China's "War of Resistance" against Japan, Mao did everything possible to consolidate his ties with Moscow. This significantly enriched the CCP's political resources in its potential confrontation with the Nationalist government, and it enabled Mao himself to consolidate his position as the CCP's paramount leader. In the late 1940s, Mao's prosecution of the Chinese civil war against the Nationalist regime was made possible in large part by Moscow's unfailing assistance. Without Soviet support, especially in Manchuria, the CCP could not have won the civil war in three short years.
Sheng's grand narrative concludes that, while Mao and his comrades were always aware of the need to adapt their policies to China's changing conditions, they, as Communists, reserved their ultimate loyalty for the cause of a global proletarian revolution, of which the Chinese revolution was an integral component. Mao and his CCP comrades believed that China would deserve their love and devotion only after it had been [End Page 176] thoroughly transformed in accordance with their Communist ideas. Sheng emphasizes that proletarian internationalism, rather than an ambiguous form of "nationalism," caused the CCP's turn toward Moscow and its hostility toward Washington. Battling Western Imperialism thus challenges the widely accepted scholarly notion that the CCP's external behavior was driven by China's "national interests." More important, Sheng counters the conventional wisdom in the field of international relations that interprets ideology as mere justification for already-existing policy decisions. According to Sheng, ideological commitments must be regarded as a fundamental element in the CCP's decision making at the highest levels.
Using Mao's CCP as a case study, Sheng develops a series of interesting theses about the basic relationship between ideology and foreign policy making. Adopting Erik Erikson's "ego identity" theory, Sheng argues that the conversion of Mao and his comrades to Marxist-Leninist ideology represented a fundamental "sociogenetic evolution," through which they acquired their "personal and group identities and became who they were" (p. 10). Consequently, they began to interpret history and perceive reality through the lens of the Marxist-Leninist theory of class struggle. Mao and his comrades certainly were not cut-and-dried ideologues, and their successful revolution testifies to their capacity to develop flexible strategies and tactics within the larger Marxist-Leninist ideological framework. Sheng finds that the CCP's policy-making process attempted to combine the "firmness of revolutionary principles" with the "flexibility of strategies and tactics." In Mao's own words, this duality was conceived as a combination of "tiger spirit" and "monkey spirit." However, strategic and tactical flexibility never compromised Mao's and his comrades' loyalty to Marxist-Leninist ideology. On the contrary, their flexibility in daily strategy and policy making made it increasingly possible for them to adhere to their basic ideological commitments. Scholars of international relations and of Chinese diplomatic history should find these provocative arguments worthy of careful consideration.
For the sake of theoretical clarity, Sheng probably needs a better delineation of the boundary between "nationalism" and "internationalism." Despite the apparent distinction between these two concepts, both take "nations" or "nation-states" as basic units of analysis. By claiming that Mao was a "proletarian internationalist," Sheng has already made an important judgment. He believes that when Mao encountered important international issues, "nations" or "nation-states" existed for him as clearly defined points of departure. This view is questionable. In some of Mao's favorite terms, such as Tianxia (all under the heaven), one finds that Mao's understanding of the modern international community was partly confused. A profound theoretical tension existed between Mao's notion of "all under the heaven" and the conventional definition of an international community composed of nations and nation-states. Thus, Sheng probably should not equate Mao's "universalism" with his "internationalism" (p. 191). Mao's universalist attitude toward international affairs is better understood as a unique expression of Chinese nationalism, a twentieth-century outgrowth of China's age-old "Central Kingdom" mentality. Further exploration of the cultural/historical realm that dominated Mao's world view is necessary. If conducted with sophistication, it may generate additional support for Sheng's excellent study on the crucial role of ideology in Mao's revolutionary external policy.
Reviewed by Chen Jian, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale