Addendum on the Chinese Revolution
13 October 2011
In The Chinese Revolution I wrote that China experienced its political revolution that severed its link to the feudal past before experiencing its industrial revolution, which is the reverse order of the events of modernization in the West. It is worth considering the significance of this in more detail.
For Marx himself the communist revolution was to come about through the revolt of exploited industrial workers, and this would obviously come about in the most industrialized regions of Europe. Not only did it not happen like this — much of the industrialized world pursued reform and forestalled revolution — but in actual fact the “revolutions” to come in Russia and China resembled civil wars more than sharp, sudden revolutionary expropriation of the expropriators, though one could call it “revolutionary civil war” and be finished with it.
For Lenin, who wanted to preside over a communist revolution in Russia, which was most definitely not the most industrialized region of Europe, the strict Marxist position wouldn’t do, so Lenin created the “weakest link” theory: the revolution would happen first in Russia because Russia was the weakest link in industrialized capitalism, and not because it was the most industrialized place on earth. Lenin also brought to full fruition the idea of a revolutionary cadre. This idea is present in Marx, but in Marx it is the industrialized workers who took action on their own account. Lenin placed the crucial work in the hands of the revolutionary cadres who would stir up the workers and work them up into a revolutionary fervor.
By the time we get to Mao in China, the original Marxist model doesn’t make any sense at all. China wasn’t at that time industrialized. There were virtually no industrial workers to organize. There were, however, rural masses to organize and stir up into revolutionary fervor, so Mao further tampered with the doctrine he inherited from Lenin, and created the idea of a revolutionary peasantry who would overthrow urban centers of power without bothering to pass through the stage of industrialization.
It was in this form, the Maoist form, that communism — no longer Marxism in any strict sense of the term — came to the third world and proved itself a central thread of the political drama of the twentieth century. For all over the world there were poor, disenfranchised, immiserated peasants, far from the centers of industrialized civilization, who could be armed and inspired to pursue their fair share of the world’s wealth, as they saw it.
Revolutionary insurrection by the poor and downtrodden is nothing new. I discussed some of the peasant revolutions of the European Middle Ages in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. The medieval period experienced repeated peasant rebellions, and some few of these cascaded into significant events, while most dissipated and came to nothing.
Imagine, if you will, that one of the medieval peasant revolutions had been successful, and a radical revolutionary regime had come to power in continental Europe at this point in history, during the Middle Ages. This would be a Western (counter-factual) parallel to the victory of the Chinese communists. Thinking of revolution from this perspective, one could even imagine a cultural revolution in a radicalized medieval Europe (once again, a counter-factual cultural revolution) to overcome entrenched feudal traditions. This makes a kind of sense, and makes the Cultural Revolution in China more comprehensible to a Westerner like myself.
The upheaval in Chinese society through the twentieth century — from 1911 revolution to 1949 communist takeover to the Cultural Revolution — can be understood as one long revolution, and perhaps the only political medicine of sufficient strength to serve as the trigger of historical discontinuity for an imperial tradition as distinguished, and therefore as entrenched, as that of China.
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