Finding Allies and Making Revolution

In a new book, Ash Center Director Tony Saich stitches together an untold story from the early years of the Chinese Communist Party


  • Daniel Harsha

In 1976, foreigners were a rarity in much of China. Even rarer still were foreigners from non-socialist countries studying in Chinese universities, especially given the recent social and educational upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, which was winding down. As a British-born graduate student at the University of Nanjing, Tony Saich—director of the Ash Center and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs—wasn’t exactly an inconspicuous presence around campus.

At Nanjing, Saich wrote a research paper on the Chinese Communist Party’s First Party Congress, an event shrouded in Maoist hagiography and the memory of which was tightly controlled by the Party. His paper drew on sources easily available on trips to Western research libraries during visits back home. In Nanjing, the former Nationalist capital of China and a city whose capture by Mao in 1949 was enshrined in a poetic verse by the Communist leader himself, had almost nothing openly available in its own library about that First Party Congress.

“My teachers came to my room and asked to meet with me privately, because if we met in the classroom, they could only parrot the party line,” recalled Saich. “And so, they came and asked me, ‘Where did you find these things?’ And I said, ‘Well, these are readily available in the West.’ And so, we had a long discussion about it, and they were fascinated.”

Saich (right) on a research trip to China posing with Luo Zhanglong, leader of the February 1923 Railway Workers’ Strike​

Knowing that the history behind the embryonic Communist Party in China was tightly controlled, Saich was intrigued when he was later approached by the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam to help translate and make public the archives of an early Communist revolutionary from the Netherlands who had been active in China. As the archives were largely written in Dutch, English, German, and Chinese, and Saich was a faculty member of Leiden University and a fluent Mandarin speaker, Saich was well positioned to comb through the papers of Henk Sneevliet—a Dutch Communist little known outside of Holland—who had been close to Lenin and charged by the early Comintern with helping to build incipient Communist movements in the East.

Saich’s painstaking work cataloguing the Sneevliet archive in Amsterdam resulted in the publication of the two-volume, The Origins of the First United Front in China: The Role of Sneevliet (alias Maring) by Brill, which for the first time made Sneevliet’s extensive correspondence with Soviet officials and Chinese Communist leaders available to researchers. The source publication helped inform a whole generation of scholars examining the origins of the Chinese Communist Party and working to untangle the many different webs linking Moscow to individual Chinese revolutionaries.

Saich’s book documented how the early Communists, miniscule in strength and with little popular political or military support, ultimately hitched their fate to Sun Yat-sen’sNationalists as part of a united front strategy to reunify the country, which had largely splintered among competing warlords following the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty. “The book had a huge impact in China because they had never seen these papers,” recalled Saich. “The papers show quite clearly that many of the Communists were opposed to collaborating with the Nationalist Party, but that it was Sneevliet who really rammed it through to get them to accept the idea.”


The timing of the publication of the Sneevliet book in 1991 was serendipitous. In just a few months, the hammer and sickle would no longer fly over Red Square in Moscow and previously closed Soviet archives would soon be open for eager researchers to uncover papers that were once off-limit.

Documents, like Sneevliet’s visa, are now kept by the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands

With this flood of new source material, particularly after the opening of the Comintern’sarchives for China in the 1990s, a new understanding of Sneevliet’s role in the early days of the Party began to develop. “I got a lot more information and better understanding about Sneevliet’s arguments with other members of the Comintern because there are actually verbatim reports, stenographic reports, of some of the meetings at which he presented his ideas and at which people criticized him. There was a lot more correspondence, which I didn’t know about before, of other Soviet agents in China who were sending back reports.”

Saich began pouring over these newly unearthed materials, as well as other contemporaneous accounts from China about the Party’s early days, with the notion of building on his earlier publication of Sneevliet’s papers. Ultimately, the contours of Finding Allies and Making Revolution: The Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party (Brill,2020), Saich’s latest book, began to take shape.

Sneevliet, as Lenin’s chosen emissary to China’s fledgling revolutionaries, “represented Comintern authority, a higher power that while alien, some felt compelled to defer to,” writes Saich in Finding Allies and Making Revolution. Yet as a foreigner without Chinese language proficiency, Sneevliet lacked a nuanced understanding of shifting dynamics and personalities shaping events in China at the time. “The challenge was especially acute,” writes Saich, “as he tried to mesh the reality he witnessed on the ground with the aspirational and ideologically determined constructs put together in Moscow to promote the international movement.”

Ultimately, one of Sneevliet’s gravest misjudgments was perhaps his most enduring accomplishment in China—the formation of a united front with the Nationalists. Carrying out his mission from Moscow, Sneevliet saw the Chinese Communists as incapable of launching a proletarian revolution on their own. As a result, Sneevliet cajoled the Chinese Communist Party’s early leadership into its marriage of convenience with the Nationalists. In 1927, the troops under Chiang Kai-shek, who had taken over leadership following the death of Sun Yat-sen, trained their fire on their erstwhile Communist partners and nearly drove the party out of existence. The massacre became a source of continual debate over the wisdom of the approach.


Despite Sneevliet’s work as a Communist agitator, Saich finds striking parallels between Sneevliet’s efforts in China nearly a century ago and more modern experts and observers who posit that China can be remade in their image. “So much of the Western strategy as it portends to China is ‘How to make them like us.’ And of course, what we’re seeing is that they haven’t begun to look more like us. Did we have dreams and fantasies that were just not realistic?”

In that respect, Sneevliet is no different than the World Bank economists or the foreign policy intelligentsia who assumed China would readily adopt Western methods and ways of doing business. “I think Sneevliet fits into that pattern. He went with a vision of what would be good for China and he tried to impose that vision on them. And they kind of rolled with it, they absorbed it, and then spat it out when it wasn’t very useful to them.”


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