Born in East Boston to an immigrant family, Benjamin Schwartz was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College.
The work that established Schwartz as an intellectual leader, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard University Press, 1951), was developed from his doctoral dissertation. Here already were visible the subtlety and penetration of his scholarship. His aim was to describe the relationship between worker and peasant movements in the evolution of Communist Party doctrine, particularly Mao’s role in rationalizing the de facto autonomy of the militarized party from its supposed “proletarian” base. The trick for Kremlin and party ideologists was to camouflage innovations in deed by orthodoxy in word, in order “to conceal…the actual severance of the Chinese part from its proletarian base.” Sources in Russian, Japanese, and Chinese led Schwartz to conclude that Maoism was no mere concoction by Moscow strategists, nor yet orthodox Leninism, but rather an original adaptation to the military and political situation of China in the 1920s and 1930s. This conclusion, now so generally accepted, constituted a crucial advance in the intellectual context of 1951 and a turning point in the development of modern China studies.
Delving deeper into how Chinese conceived the relationship between their own cultural background and Western thought, Schwartz studied the pioneer translator-interpreter, Yen Fu. His second book, In Search Of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu And The West (Harvard University Press, 1964), could only have been written by one broadly learned in both Chinese and Western cultures. Schwartz’s study of Yen’s translations required a critical re-reading of the works of Spencer, J. S. Mill, Montesquieu, Huxley and others, in a way that revealed their core messages as perceived by a Chinese mind. The mind of Yen Fu focused on how state power in the West was connected to Western social thought, and how Chinese state power could profit from the same connection. To perceive the connection between “liberal” thought and the “Promethean explosion” of the Western industrial state was Yen’s special contribution to his age, and at the same time Schwartz’s contribution to a deeper understanding of the modern West.
Yen Fu never believed that the world of thought could be neatly divided between Chinese and Western civilizations, or between “traditional” and “modern.” Schwartz, too, believed that universal problems (such as the relation of man to the “unknowable”) could be approached through studying the compatibilities of cultures, as well as their oppositions. This ecumenical spirit animates his third major book, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Harvard University Press 1985). Schwartz wrote: “The realization of the true way cannot come simply by submission to external rules embedded in language but arises out of an undeviating commitment of the will to do right.” Meditations on this level, illuminating the human identity we share with the ancient Chinese, are to be found throughout the book.
Schwartz’s interests expanded into ancient time, rather than as these books might suggest) drifting backward into it; he remained fascinated by contemporary China throughout his career and wrote upon it often. His many articles show how the questions he addressed early in his China studies remained vivid in his mind thereafter, and how connectedness seemed more significant to him than conventional divisions. Many of these articles are collected in Communism and China: Ideology In Flux (1968) and China and Other Matters (1996; both Harvard University Press).