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Reviewed by:
  • Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History
  • Thomas P. Bernstein
S. A. Smith, Revolution and the People in Russia and China: A Comparative History. viii + 249 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN-13 978-0521713962. $29.99.

The literature that compares the Chinese and Russian revolutions is not large. Much of it has focused on macro structural explanations for the similarities and differences, as in the work of Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol, and more recently, Mark Lupher's Power Restructuring in China and Russia.1 As far I know, there has not been a comprehensive comparison at the level of the individual. S. A. Smith's new book is therefore a very welcome addition to the comparative scholarship on revolutions. It is about the transformation of the identities of peasant migrants as they became workers in a time of rapid social and economic change as well as revolutionary upheavals in St. Petersburg and Shanghai. In terms of time periods, the book mainly focuses on Russia from the 1880s to 1917 and on Shanghai from the 1890s to the late 1930s. An analytical introduction, "Capitalist Modernity and Communist Revolution," is followed by four chapters: one on the continued salience of native-place identities; a second on individualism and class consciousness; a third on gender identities; and a fourth on national and class identities. A concluding fifth chapter, "Workers and Communist Revolution," first compares the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 and its aftermath with China's prolonged rural road to power from 1928 on. The second part explores the postrevolutionary eras, ending in 1940 in the Soviet Union and in 1976 in China.

As the chapter topics indicate, Smith's reach goes far beyond the "peasant-to-proletarian paradigm" (5). He does not question that peasants became workers, or that factory work, wage labor, capitalist production, and exploitation significantly shaped their identities. But he deliberately uses the term "capitalist modernity" rather than "capitalist industrialization" (5). For him, the workplace was at the core of the migratory experience, but it was only one of a larger set of influences that transformed migrant identities. For instance, [End Page 439] migrants in both cities were influenced by the beginnings of consumer culture, including fashion and mass entertainment. This exposure affected readiness to embrace revolutionary messages. On the one hand, the influences of the consumer culture served to depoliticize; on the other, they could be part of political mobilization, as in the case of Chinese movements to boycott foreign goods.

One of Smith's purposes is thus to show that new urban circumstances could shape identities in different, not necessarily consistent ways. He sees no necessary contradiction between individualism—that is, rising self-awareness—and participation in collective endeavors, but whether the former led to the latter rather than to "petty-bourgeois individualism" was a matter of contingency. It may be "heuristically useful to situate individualism and collectivism at two ends of the spectrum," he writes, but the connection between the two was "historically more complex, contingent, and mutable than social scientists and philosophers often allow" (69).

Smith brings unique qualifications to this book. He has acquired rare fluency in the two languages. He brings to bear knowledge accumulated over decades of research in archival and secondary sources. Beginning in 1983, he published several books that dealt with the working classes of the two cities, albeit in separate volumes: Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–1918); A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920–1927; and Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895–1927.2 The book under review can thus be regarded as a comparative synthesis of his decades-long country-specific work. But in addition, the current volume reflects wide reading in recent literatures and archives. The book fully reflects the author's remarkable depth of understanding of the two cities.

The author examines variation not just between the cases but also within each case. Moreover, each chapter is fully comparative, weaving back and forth between the cities. In contrast, most studies that compare two cases devote separate chapters to each, leaving comparison to an introduction or conclusion. Smith's approach serves...


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