Fanshen Part 2: Internal and External Revolution
Hinton dedicates dozens of pages of Fanshen to covering Chinese Communists’ internal struggle. Obviously, he finds this a crucial aspect of the success of the land reform campaign. Chapter 42, for example, begins with a discussion of the human consciousness, which
“May be compared to an artichoke. Its tender core is enclosed in layer upon layer of defences, excuses, rationalizations, approximations. These must be peeled off off if one is to discover the true complex motives driving any individual…What made self-revelation possible for the work team members that day was the deep commitment every one of them had to the success of the land reform movement. They freely examined themselves and their comrades, not for partisan advantage, nor for the sake of self-exposure…but in order to remove obstacles in the way of more effective work.
Fanshen (2008), 388.
For these cadres and the author, this collective process of internal struggle and reform mattered just as much as the concrete progress they made in the field. In fact, the health of the revolution, from this viewpoint, correlated with the health of its agents. The Marxist name for this steeling process is usually given as “criticism/self-criticism,” and it is meant to liberate each individual, and the working group in the party, from deleterious parts of their personalities. Overemphasis on subjective reasoning, lax moral standards, and tendencies towards secrecy and self-doubt were all vices to be rooted out and replaced with a spirit of camaraderie, stoicism, and doggedness.
An important aspect of this process is the ferreting of personal evasion, as the comrades exposed one another’s weaknesses as well as their own in a mutually beneficial way. Hinton records one example:
Having said what they thought about [work team leader] Hou, the other cadres found themselves suddenly free of the bitterness they had felt toward him, and Hou, having heard their opinions and found them reasonable, suddenly felt warm and friendly toward them all. The “Great Ox” [Hou’s nickname] turned out to be a far more likeable human being than anyone had suspected.
Fanshen (2008), 392.
An essential condition for success in these sessions was an air of positive friendship and mutual respect among the cadres, which prevented the creation of a negative atmosphere. In untried hands, criticism and self-criticism can be little more than self-righteous accusation and passive-aggressive self-laceration. What Hinton reveals is that, even among those who dedicated themselves to revolutionary causes, their own personalities were marked with the residues of individualism and, in the specific case of the cadres in Fanshen, the limitations of a peasant or intellectual upbringing.
Perhaps because of my own limitations, my previous view of this emphasis on internal revolution, this rooting out of personal flaws, was that it was overly negative and focused on individuals. After all, the Marxist historian learns to devalue individuals as a defence against distracting oneself from the larger structures that enable and constrict the development of human societies. In the political arena, however, the importance of organizational cohesion and unity necessitates a collective-individual process of renewal, particularly given the immensity of the tasks confronting revolutionaries today. Our conceptions of “working together” with others are bred in academic and work environments that prize individual achievements at any cost, and in some corporate environments this competition is so cutthroat that employees actively sabotage each other for personal gain. Unlearning these practices, ingrained from childhood under capitalism, cannot but be a priority.
As for the “negativity” of criticism/self-criticism, Hinton often emphasizes the positive outcomes of the “airing out” sessions. Rather than being an outlet for “sad affects” as Spinoza would have it, the process was focused on exorcising them, draining out vindictive or selfish behaviour and leaving, it is hoped, a more positive and even friendly environment. Friendly in an uncompromising way, of course, since absolute honesty with those in the group is another necessity for successful criticism.
It’s often difficult to find good literature exploring the tools of criticism and self-criticism. Marxists writing in English seem reticent to bring it up, likely as a response to its associations with “ugly” aspects of the later Cultural Revolution and, perhaps, the famed excesses of urban guerrilla groups in, for instance, Japan. Any movement, however, is only as powerful as its members, and denying ourselves a vital tool for creating viable revolutionaries seems foolish indeed.