Jonathan Spence (1936-2021)

February 3, 2022

From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters

It is with regret that we learned of the passing of Jonathan Spence on December 25. Spence was a noted China scholar at Yale and the author of more than a dozen books on Chinese history spanning centuries and social classes. Outside of The Search for Modern China, his most comprehensive history, his books tended to take off from the story of an individual, whether a pivotal figure of their time or a relatively obscure player, to open a window on the life of that era.

Books like Treason by the Book and God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, found a wider readership than professors of Chinese history could normally count on. There were few aspects of China’s history that he was not knowledgeable about and fascinated by, and he shared that fascination with his readers.


It is of particular interest to Marxist-Humanists, and not incidental to Spence’s life work, that in the 1960s he participated in the research that Raya Dunayevskaya was doing to dig deeper into the unique form that state-capitalism took in China.

Dunayevskaya credited Spence for “some of the research” in the chapter “The Challenge of Mao Zedong,” added to the second edition of Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 Until Today in 1964. Their collaboration required a dialogue on Marxist-Humanism, from rejection of the vanguard party vs. movements from below to discussion of Hegel’s Absolute Idea (see “Absolute Idea and self-liberation”)

In an April 1961 essay marked “For Raya Dunayevskaya from Jonathan,” Spence analyzed documents, reporting that “the organization of the soviets and indeed the manufacture from above of soviets that Trotsky had warned against in Problems of the Chinese Revolution, as well as the incidental purges, lead one to see the revolution during this period as imposed from above by a very small elite, rather than as the expression of a genuine revolutionary spirit by the peasants and workers of China.” He jokingly vouched for the accuracy of a Japanese spy report on Mao’s Jiangxi Soviet, given that it was unlikely that Marxist-Humanists had been able to infiltrate Japanese espionage.

On Feb. 9, 1962, Dunayevskaya answered Spence’s questioning her calling Mao Stalinist despite differences between China and Russia:

 “Stalin was a name, only a name, for an objective world phenomenon, that of state-capitalism. That, and that alone, explains how Mao could disregard every rule in the book of Stalin as the Russian phenomenon, and still be a ‘Stalinist.’”

Marxist-Humanism became known to Marxist dissidents like Wang Ruoshui and Liu Binyan, although they had no way of opening a dialogue with Dunayevskaya while she lived. We in News and Letters Committees are doubly grateful to Jonathan Spence, for a lifetime of public scholarship and for his work with Raya Dunayevskaya on critiquing Mao’s state-capitalism.

—Bob McGuire

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