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Journal of Cold War Studies 1.3 (1999) 176-177

Book Review

Battling Western Imperialism:
Mao, Stalin, and the United States

Michael 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...