16 April, 2011

Analysis of the Chinese Revolution

by Eric Hobsbawm

"A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism." 

To many, Communism and Marxism are interchangeable, despite the differences between the two. Communal societies have existed long before the Industrial Revolution, while Marxism was only created during the mid-nineteenth century after the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Marxism goes beyond just the notion of a communal society, it’s philosophy is also a method of studying history and economy. 

Marxist theory also predicts that the proletariat will eventually seize control of the means of production. The theory behind Marxism is so in-depth that a nation could be under communist rule without necessarily following the Marxist doctrine. Russia for example, regards itself as the most authentic communist nation, following a Marx-Leninist doctrine, yet it is also a highly stratified nation. A better example of a variation from Marxism is the Communist Revolution of China which succeeded after a decade or two, shortly after the defeat of the Guomindang (Nationalist party of China). Though the idea of a functional communal society is present, there are many deviations from Marxism. Unlike the European powers Marxism was intended for, China was a largely unindustrialized nation. This is the main fork on the road toward Communism, though by far not the only.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, served as the foundation for Marxism, which was aimed at a highly industrialized nation such as Britain or Germany, far from the rural agrarian society China was known as. According to Marx, the proletariat is a class who lives as long as they can find work, where work exists only when it is profitable. This is a class found in the cities, minute compared to China’s massive rural population. Industrialization for China did not begun until World War I during which trade routes were cut off and production shifted from civil to military. Goods became scarce causing demand to soar, making it profitable to start factories. The large majority of China’s population were composed of peasant farmers.

The proletariat and peasant farmers are very similar. They are in the bottom strata of an oppressive hierarchy, making up the masses. They are the backbone of the society, and are to a certain extent exploited by the people above them. "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority." The proletariat class to Marx is synonymous to the Chinese serfs. The Communist Revolution of China offered many promising reforms to the poor peasant farmers whom never had much power in the past. Like the proletariat, the peasant class was an immense group which was often neglected. Both the proletariat and the peasants usually lived an unpleasant life. The industrial workers of Europe lived in filthy slums where little attention was paid to their welfare. There was little security. If someone was injured, then they would become unemployed and effectively left to die. Children often fell asleep in front of dangerous machines. The peasant farmers were no better off.

When the peasant is ruined, he has to sell his field and his hut. If it happens to be a good year, he may just be able to pay his debts. But no sooner and has the harvest been brought in than the grain bins are empty again, and contract in hand and sack on back, he has to go off and start borrowing again. He has heavier interest to pay, and soon he has not got enough to eat. If there is a famine he falls into utter ruin. Families disperse, parents separate, they seek to become slaves, and no one will buy them.

Though the proletariat and the Chinese farmers had many similarities, this generalization however, does not suffice. Not only is the urban life of a proletariat worker quite different from those of a farmer, they also exist in a very different setting. Though both their lifestyles are of the lower class, they have little else in common. Most of the farmers owned the plot of land which they worked on. They worked for themselves, their earnings were relative to their effort and skill. Aside from taxes, the farmers owned the harvests, and could do whatever they wanted with it. They had much more freedom than the industrial workers. The proletariat had to work long hours everyday, often with quotas to meet. They did not own the means of production like their peasant counterpart. The proletariat lived in dense cities where the unemployed could gather and discuss revolutionary issues; discontents could exchange ideas with intellectuals easily. The peasant farmers lived in a low density setting where work is plentiful, and intellectuals were scarce. Though both instances involve the hopeless majority overcoming the few rich, circumstances in each case were quite different.

Instead of rising with the progress of industry, the modern laborer sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of their own class. Karl Marx uses this to justify the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. One of the aims of Communism is to solve this problem. After the Chinese Communist Revolution, everyone’s income was relatively equal. Although "some workers were paid bonuses for producing more than others", this was later on discouraged by the government. The workers’ income was based on the profit of their team so the more efficient teams earned slightly more money. Each individual worker’s income is also based on skill, ability, and difficulty. Despite the variations, people of the same type of occupation had similar incomes. Under Communism, instead of sinking deeper, the living conditions in class become similar. Though the end result coincided with Marxism, the beginning is very different. The living conditions of the proletariat are indeed deteriorating for the benefit of the other classes. The scenario with the peasant farmers are considerably different. The decline in the standard living was not largely due to continual exploitation as was the case with the proletariat. The Chinese were fighting Japanese invaders which had a vastly superior military force. They also had to support the ongoing civil war during crisis times like the famine. During the war, tax rates soared to ridicules levels. The conditions declined for everyone, not just a single class. The Communist Manifesto was aimed at the working class during peacetime, not during a war. It is only during war that conditions for Chinese farmers steadily worsened.

The main revolt did not come from the workers of industrial cities as Marx had envisioned, but the peasant farmers in rural areas. Communists had always believed that their revolution would have to be spearheaded by oppressed factory workers in the cities, but Mao showed that the revolutionary base could be established in a region far from the cities and towns. From these peasants Mao recruited members for the C.C.P. and the Chinese Red Army. The Communists originally hoped to create a massive revolt in all the cities to topple capitalism, but each riot was quickly put down by the Nationalist forces. Instead of a large scale proletariat revolt which defeats capitalism, it was a peasant army which defeated the government militarily. The peasant army was the only way to achieve victory since the Communists had to hide in northern China in the rural countryside safely out of reach of most of the Nationalist forces. This also meant they were too far away from any industrial city to have any notable influence. This is drastically different from Marx’s revolution since it was military might, not political power, that changed the governmental and economical system.

The Marxist theory stated that "the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character ... [and] becomes an appendage of the machine." One of the reasons for revolting would be because workers only had collective value and power through the work they provide, worth even less than machines. One worker could replace another, they are both equal and the same. Unindustrialized, China did not have this problem. Since the horrors of industry were known by relatively few, it made little impact in much of China. It is horrors like absence of job security, lack of protection against dangerous machines, long work hours (usually over seventy hours a week), and bare subsistence income (just to name a few) which forces the workers to revolt. Conditions were so horrible that the life expectancy of the urban industrial worker was thirteen years below those of non-industrialized areas. The far majority of the Chinese were farmers who retained individuality both in themselves and their products. Since most Chinese families owned their own plot of land, they do not simply become replaced or fired for whatever reason. Whether due to injury or a depression in the economy, the farmers still have control. Peasant farmers rarely become discontent for the same reasons the proletariat does. At anytime, the farmers could see the products of their hard work, take what they made, and do as they wish with it That was something the proletariat Marx had in mind could not do, causing to resent the system they are a part of. The total absence of direct power within a class which fundamentally holds all the real power is an important catalyst in a revolution. The injustice would have to be corrected. This situation was lacking in a country like China where the proletariat contributed to only a small percentage of the total population.

One contributing factors to Marx’s revolution is the fierce competition amongst capitalists. As the competition increases, the wage decreases, until it will be just enough for subsistence. This will cause the workers to resent the owners whom they work for. The fear of wages dropping even further (caused by high supply of workers and low demand of labor) would provoke the men to unite (to create a low supply of workers and thus a high demand of labor). This is one of the foundations of the union. In the early stages of a Marxist revolution, the workers begin to form trade unions against the bourgeoises to maintain a fair wage, as well as prepare for the occasional revolts and riots. The success of the unions will lead to the formation of new unions, as well as the expansion of existing unions. When the workers rise up again, they would have enough strength to replace the existing system of government. The unions are a key step in the power struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Without this step, the workers will not have enough power to make any real change.

In China, virtually all the revolts incited by the Chinese Communist Party were quickly ended. The few successful revolts were aided by the Guomindang which later sided against the Communists. The arrests and executions of Communist leaders were usually enough to stabilize the situation. One example is known as the Nanjing Road incident. When two thousand students distributed leaflets in the International Settlement, hundreds were arrested, others were brutally assaulted. Thirty thousand surrounded the police station the next day. The British police killed five, and injured fifty, leading to the formation of The Workers’ General Union. Within half a month, one hundred and fifty thousand were on strike in Shanghai. Even a strike of this magnitude failed, for various reason. One of the main reasons was the workers’ dependency upon the same market they struck against. This is why the peasants had much more success. Unions did poorly in winning their demands in China. This does not happen in a Marxist revolution. The proletariat would be so strong that they could not be defeated.

According to Marx, only the most efficient capitalist will survive, the unfit will slip into the proletariat. The competition amongst the capitalists will eventually eliminate all but a few capitalists, creating a large proletariat class. The proletariat will be so large that they will easily overthrow their oppressors. In China, the proletariat did not form unions large enough to carry any notable political weight to the current government. "Because the unions were small and weak, ... strikes usually ended in failure. Moreover, there were no labour laws to protect the workers. The warlord government in Peking was indifferent to the plight of industrial workers and had no power to interfere with factories in the treaty ports." Marx did not consider racial differences as the ones which existed in China. Whites were superior to Asians, they had their own parks, and other special privileges. Even if the owners do fail, they would not join the proletariat class in China due to the virtue of having white skin.

The Communist Manifesto states that, the bourgeoisie’s battle against the aristocracy and anti-progress (of industry) bourgeoisie, and bourgeoisie of foreign countries, will bring the proletariat into the political arena. "In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat.... The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie." This was far from the truth in the Chinese Communist Revolution. It was not the bourgeoisie who trained the proletariat nor the peasants to fight, whether with words or weapons. Most of the actions of the proletariat themselves changed little. It was the foreign trained Communists whom taught the largely illiterate peasants the ideas of Communism, as well as military training. Russian advisors and Japanese trained soldiers created military academies which trained the peasant army.

One criticism of Communism which seemed so radical and unheard of was the concept of abolishing private property. Marx was not terribly concerned about this possible problem because of the conditions of the average European, especially from England or Germany. "You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths." This reassurance however, only applied to heavily industrialized nations. In China’s case, perhaps nine tenth of the population were peasant farmers, instead of the proletariat. The peasants had assorted privately owned property from livestock to machinery to land. They have not only economic and utilitarian value, but sentimental value as well. This was why the peasant farmers would be reluctant to give up their private property. It is even more evident here that Marx did not write The Communist Manifesto with a largely agrarian nation like China in mind.

The heart of any Communist revolution is the abolition of private property. The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal was same as that of Marx. They believed that under common ownership, use of resources would be more efficient. They did not immediately move the population into communes however. The Communists prepared the people in small steps. "When the Communists had come to power in 1949, they had confiscated farm land and turned it over to the peasants. A few years later the Party organized the peasants into small co-operative farms" The small incremental steps gave the peasants experience. First, individual families gained their own property to work on, instead of working for a landlord. Then, groups of thirty to forty families collectively worked together much like Marx described. The production did not meet the demand so the government decided to "organize still larger agricultural units called communes" During the period known as the "great leap forward", twenty-five thousand communes of approximately five thousand households each were established. "These peasants not only lost their remaining rights in the land but also had to turn over their work animals and farm equipment to the commune"

"[The peasant] fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history." Marx’s point of view in the Communist Manifesto does not apply to China here either. The revolutionary class in China was not composed entirely of the proletariat. The peasants actually made up of the majority of the revolutionary class.. China’s revolution can be summed up in terms of the peasant’s revolt, for it was the peasants who provided the backbone of the revolution. They supplied the Chinese Red Army with food and shelter, or even enlisting in the army. The army was composed almost entirely of peasant farmers. They did not try to reverse history as Marx claimed, but tried to help the revolution along instead. "Given time the [Chinese] Red Army could turn defeat into final victory. But it had to live off the land and this was possible only if the peasants and the countryfolk accepted and supported them." Without the peasants, it is doubtful any revolution after the Guomindang took power would have been successful at all. Unlike the industrialized nations where peasants were grouped with the capitalistic middle class, Chinese peasants were more like part of the proletariat in a sense.

"National differences and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing .... United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat." According to Marx, the proletariat could not be truly free until many nations unite. During the revolution, China received only limited help from Russia. The leading nations sided with the Guomindang. All the nations, including Russia, recognized only Guomindang as the government of China. United States continually supplied the Guomindang with munitions which was often ultimately used against the Chinese Red Army. With little help, the C.C.P. was able to overthrow the current government and liberate the lower classes. Emancipation of the working class did not require the aid of many leading nations as Marx wrote. If the Communist Revolution was meant for all nations, and all proletariat to be free, then the Chinese revolution was only a small part in an unfinished and ongoing revolution. China today is becoming decreasingly Communist, and increasingly Capitalist. It seems that a global Communist Revolution will never happen. Though China contributed to other Communist Revolutions such as the one in Vietnam, China is unlikely to continue the revolution any longer.

In section two, "Proletarians and Communists", Marx noted two points that made Communists different from other working-class parties. First, the struggles of the proletariat are independent of nationality, they should serve the common interest. Second, they should always represent the interests of the movement as a whole, regardless of the stage of the struggle. The connection between Russia and C.C.P. reflects the first point. During World War II, most of Russia’s resources were tied up fighting the Axis, and had little to spare to what was then considered a lost cause. Despite that, she gave the Chinese Communists tens of thousands of much needed rifles. Though she was not able to offer much munitions, she gave plenty of advice, and offered many advisors. After the war was over, Russia sent much of its weapon stockpiles to the Chinese Communists to arm them against the Guomindang. The second point is reflected by the various sacrifices that the Communists had to make in order to avoid defeat. The Chinese Red Army was a guerrilla army in which they had to live off the land. Their food and shelter were donated by locals where ever they went. Although its the nominal contributions of the local peasants that allowed the revolution to succeed, sacrifices are notable during times when they were under heavy pressure, such as the Great March. Without the hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned their home to undertake the difficult journey, the Communist movement would have been defeated. Small bands of people risked their life by slowing down pursuing enemies so the main group could get away. The sacrifices of the few who held back the enemy is a clear example of representing the interests of the revolution as a whole. The Chinese Communist Party reflected the two distinguishing characteristics from The Communist Manifesto.

China was too different from the European industrial world of Marx to apply completely to The Communist Manifesto. Its large peasant population, and its small class of proletariat differed greatly from the industrial slums Marx was used to. Much of the Chinese not only owned the means of production, but was also far from being the faceless worker Marx described. Though the lack of safety regulations and enforcement was appalling, its effects rarely reached the peasant masses which made up most of China.

The Communist Revolution of China is quite different from Marxism and the outline from The Communist Manifesto. Although the Chinese Communist Revolution’s result shared many similarities with Marxism, it is usually because they are common to all Communist revolutions, real or theoretical. Private property was largely abolished, and replaced with co-ownership. Aside from the basics, everything is, for the most part, different. Marx could not have imagined that a Communist Revolution would end in major military confrontations between armies with millions of soldiers, nor the implementation of his industrial regime upon an agrarian society. Though the proletariat and peasantry are both of the lower class, their similarities are considerable. Marx would not consider peasant farmers as an evolutionary force. Applying a system ahead of its time created inconsistencies. The relatively small proletariat class meant unions were virtually useless. This meant variations would appear in almost every aspect of the revolution.


1. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 78

2. Richard W. Miller, The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. Terrell Carver (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 55.

3. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 48.

4. C.P. Fitzgerald, Myra Roper, China: A World So Changed (Hong Kong: Thomas Nelson, 1972), 138.

5. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 49.

6. Hyman Kublin, China (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), 184

7. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 43.

8. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 46.

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11. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 88

12. Hyman Kublin, China (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), 162.

13. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 47.

14. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 54.

15. Hyman Kublin, China (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), p.222.

16. Jules Archer, China in the 20th Century. (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 133-134.

17. Hyman Kublin, China (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), p.223.

18. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 47-48.

19. C.P. Fitzgerald, Myra Roper, China: A World So Changed (Hong Kong: Thomas Nelson, 1972), 143-144.

20. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Verso, 1998), 58.

21. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 95


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