Book Review: Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History

By S. A. Smith


In an attempt to keep the more useful side of my brain active in the last month since handing in my MA dissertation, I have been attempting to stimulate it gently by reading this book. Here between the pages of this solidly-assembled paperback, Smith brings together his unique expertise in both Russian and Chinese labour history to compare the development of working-class social identities in St Petersburg and Shanghai and how this affected the revolutions in each country. St Petersburg and Shanghai seem naturally comparable, because the two industrial capitals experienced a rush of new labouring migrants from the countryside who had just begun to see themselves as workers when the revolution took hold of their respective countries. This book is much more than a study of workers in two cities, though. Smith goes beyond social histories of labour and uses his case studies to argue that viewing the formation of the working class from processes beyond capitalist production provides a better understanding of workers’ consciousness and politics.

Price: £18:99
Publication Date: 2008
ISBN: 978-0521713962

In five, really rather lucid chapters, Smith analyses the four axes of new workers’ social identity – native place, individuality, gender, and identification with the nation-state – and their fate under the revolutionary Communist state. The author accounts for the importance of new migrants’ ties to native place as they transitioned from peasants to workers. While Shanghai’s migrants held a stronger tie to native place than their counterparts in St Petersburg, native place still shaped where new migrants worked, lived and moved as a communal body in both places. Part of the shift from villager to worker was the transformation in the sense of the self as migrants came into contact with education, modernist morals, and consumerism, a shift stronger in St Petersburg than Shanghai. Smith argues that this heightened awareness of devaluation by others engendered class consciousness, thereby modifying the classic argument that consciousness was solely a collective response to capitalist exploitation. The transition to urban life altered gender identities as well, although not as much as one might imagine. For women in both cities, urban living offered more economic and personal liberation than the village (although, again, women in China came from a more oppressive village culture and gained less freedom than their Russian counterparts). The shift was part of a larger crisis in gender identity fostered by modernity and the rejection of rural patriarchal family structures, which led both to calls for women’s liberation and lamentations on the immorality of ‘modern’ women. The result helped to destabilize culture, but not to liberate women. The crisis in gender relations raises several possibilities for new interpretations of the revolutions. I wonder how wartime mobilization (World War I in Russia and the long war and civil war in China) affected these gender roles in the factories and homes. Finally, in what is the book’s most complex and enriching chapter, Smith examines workers’ identification with the nation by questioning the axiom that Russia’s Communist revolution led to a victory of class over nation and China’s nation over class. Contrasting the slow development of national identity in Russia with the potent anti-imperialist national struggle among China’s workers, Smith still shows that class and national identities reinforced each other in both countries.

Smith concludes by exploring how workers’ identities affected the revolutions and were later shaped by Communist regimes, rather than the well-worn debate of whether or not workers supported the revolutions. He shows how the two Communist regimes reshaped the four axes of workers’ social identity by attacking ‘backwardness’ and reinforcing national identity, but not going as far on gender equality, for example. The Communist regimes, then, were a form of modernist state which continued to shape class identity. In this way, Smith supports a global view of modernity and gives evidence for what several recent scholars have suggested – that there are several forms of modernity beyond the Western capitalist model.

Smith’s work is the most insightful comparative history of revolution since Florencia Mallon’s groundbreaking Peasant and Nation (Berkeley, 1995). Where Mallon compared the relationships between peasants and the nation in Mexico and Peru to give us a new understanding of national identity formation and peasant agency in revolution, Smith builds on his comparison of Russia and China to give us a new view of working-class formation and modernity. This stimulating and provocative, with its attractive spine and smooth matte finish on the cover (which makes it a joy to carry under your arm) this book should have a place on every historian’s bookshelf.