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December 2, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright December 2, 2010 Daniel Little. Used by permission.


Chalmers Johnson, co-founder and president of the Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of San Francisco and long-time professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Diego, died on November 20, 2010. (Here are several notices — The Atlantic, theNew York Times, and The Nation.) In the past ten years or so Johnson has become widely known for his critical books about American empire (Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2004), The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2005), Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2008), and Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope(2010)). The bulk of his career, however, was devoted to the study of China and Japan, and this posting examines one of his most notable contributions to these areas.

His earliest contribution to China studies was his 1962 book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. The core of the book was written as a Ph.D. dissertation at Berkeley, making use of archives of secret Japanese wartime materials collected by Robert Scalapino. (Johnson describes the origins of the book in “Peasant Nationalism Revisited: The Biography of a Book.”) The book was one of the early efforts to provide a more systematic explanation of the success of the Chinese Communist Party in mobilizing mass support during the Anti-Japanese War. The book became one of the linchpins of later debates about the Chinese Revolution. As a political scientist, Johnson was mindful of the inherent unlikelihood of a successful revolution anywhere, and this seemed particularly true in China in the 1920s and 1930s. Large-scale mobilization is inherently difficult to sustain, and local discontents rarely escalate to national scale. (Lucien Bianco made this point about China, writing in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Roots Movements in Twentieth-Century China that “The essential difference between chronic peasant agitation and revolutionary action is that the latter is deliberately offensive in nature, whereas the former resembles the defensive reaction of a beleaguered organism. If peasant agitation was chronic … , it was because the occasions for such conduct were endemic in rural China” (4).)