Addendum on the Chinese Revolution

13 October 2011

Thursday


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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6 Responses to “Addendum on the Chinese Revolution”

  1. My impression of Chinese history as presented in Chinese museums is that the Imperial period had much to commend it, and was even providing some good exemplars for the on-going re-invention of the state. 1911 didn’t seem so much like the heroic overthrow of a regime as the collapse of a system that had hopelessly degenerated. The element of communism that seemed to resonate with many Chinese was the end of the subjugation of one class by another. But, fortunately, scholars still seem to be respected, and they seem quite happy with people earning their privileges. It will be interesting to see if the current crop of billionares get to pass their wealth onto their kids, regardless.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Dave,

      There has been much comment on the continuity of Chinese cultural institutions, even a continuity bridging the imperial and communist periods.

      A correspondent has recently made me aware of the fact that the massive 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which resulted in an estimated quarter million fatalities, would have been even worse except for the fact that local institutions in place since imperial times provided for the evacuation of large numbers of persons from endangered areas.

      More recently, both official and unofficial Chinese organizations have been showing a renewed interested in Confucianism.

      I agree that the inter-generational wealth transfer issue of those who have become rich from the industrialization of China is potentially a sore point. Given the status of the revolutionary generation’s “princelings” I would bet that the money stays in the family.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. MisterEgo said

    Factually wrong about Russia, the revolution in Russia pretty much happened in the few industrial cities, like Sankt Petersburg. The countryside pretty much had no clue what was happening until much later if even then…

    About China I don’t know enough but it seems to be more or less what you said.

    Russia’s royalty-goverment also suffered much more pressure then any of the western nations because of a disastrous war campaign added to the economic and collapse of society in Russia in years before WW1. Bolsheviks provided that change. For better or for worse…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Please note that I did not say that the revolution in Russia happened outside urban areas or that it was primarily driven by the peasantry. It did not and was not, and I did not make either of these claims.

      What I did claim, and what Lenin said straight out, was that Russia was not a fully industrialized society, and from Marx’s time to Lenin it was widely assumed that, when the revolution came, it would come in highly industrialized regions like England or Germany.

      Industrial centers like St. Petersburg and Odessa were crucial to the outbreak of the Russian revolution, though, as I wrote above, the revolution itself was indecisive and it was the victory on the battlefields of the civil war that consolidated the Bolsheviks’ hold on power.

      While Russia suffered much from its campaigns of the First World War, and this proved to be a trigger for revolution, I would say that the retrograde policies of the Tsarist regime were more responsible for the revolution than “the economic and collapse of society in Russia.”

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      • MisterEgo said

        Thank you for correcting me, I noticed now that I repeated more or less what you said. That’s what I get for reading it in my email inbox while I am still half asleep. Explains my funny Engrish as well.

        Tzarist retrograde policies equals economic collapse and collapse of society. That’s what I meant. The collapse of that magnitude certainly would not have happened without WW1. Which is why the “weakest link” theory makes sense.

        I’ll continue this reply (about the “weakest link”) on Existential Due Diligence. You made me wish to say a word or two about it there because of “Occupy…” and “Obama”.

  3. geopolicraticus said

    Dear Mister Ego:

    You’re welcome. I understand all too well. I fall asleep over my computer more often than not, always hopeful that I will complete another post before the end of the day.

    One way or another the Tsarist regime as it was then constituted was destined for dissolution. As it happened the one-two punch of WWI and Bolshevik revolution cleared away the old to make way for the new, but in the absence of these factors I have no doubt that some other trigger would have spelled the doom of the Romanovs.

    Very Best Wishes,

    Nick

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