Publication Chinese Revolution

The period between 1840 until 1949 marks the onset and triumph of revolution in China. How did Chinese society transform and what were the key developments in this period?





Mechthild Leutner,


July 2022

Related Files / Renmin meishu chubanshe

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HCDM) is a comprehensive Marxist lexicon which, upon completion, will span 15 volumes and over 1,500 entries. Of the nine volumes published so far in the original German, two volumes have been published in Chinese since 2017. In 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung teamed up with the HCDM team to advance its "globalization" into English and Spanish, with the ultimate aim of recruiting a new generation of Marxist scholars from around the globe to the project and expanding its readership and reach. The below entry is one of a selection of these translations that are made available on our website.

For more information about the project and other translated entries, check out our HCDM dossier.

A: al-thaura al-ṣīnīya. - F: révolution chinoise. - G: chinesische Revolution. - R: kitajskaja revoljucija. - S: revolución china. – C: Zhongguo geming 中国革命

Since the term CR was first used by Marx and Engels, it has been applied to a wide range of subject matters. In the broadest sense, it has been used as a general denotation for the transformation of Chinese society from approximately 1840 until 1949; in the narrower sense, it has referred to the particular stages of development within this period to which revolutionary quality has been attributed (Taiping Revolution, 1911 Revolution, 1925-1927).

1. The incorporation of China into the capitalist world market beginning in the 1840s led Marx and Engels to consider the world-historical significance of this fact for revolutionary processes in Western Europe. While they drew on the notions of a “static” and “despotic” China handed down through the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Montesquieu, Herder), German idealism (Hegel), and classical political economy (Smith, James Mill), they nevertheless foresaw the coming revolutionary restructuring of Chinese society, in stark contrast to established assumptions and the dominant European image of China at that time.

Only scattered references were made to China in the context of capitalist expansion from 1848 onwards; starting in 1850, these were supplemented by mostly fragmentary analyses of developments in China, especially the Taiping Rebellion and the implications of China’s inclusion in the capitalist world market. “Chinese industry, dependent on manual labour, succumbed to competition from the machine. The imperturbable Middle Kingdom was aroused by a social crisis. […] The country reached the brink of ruin and is already threatened with a mighty revolution.” (MECW 10, 266 [MEGA I.10, 219; MEW 7, 221 et sq.]) Moreover, Marx notices a “curiosity” in the egalitarian demands of the Taiping movement, particularly in the face of the failure of the Revolution of 1848. As early as 1853, however, he no longer regards the CR as an oddity and highlights the direct European influence on the events in China, where “the chronic rebellions subsisting in China for about ten years past […] now gathered together in one formidable revolution” (Revolution in China and in Europe, MECW 12, 93 [MEW 9, 95 et sq.]). He emphasises the British opium trade’s trigger effect, by which “the barbarous and hermetic isolation from the world was infringed” and “the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces” (94 [96]). At the same time, however, he expects the CR to have a retroactive effect on the “people of Europe”. The volatility of the Chinese market for British industrial goods and the rise in prices for imported Chinese tea would cause “the Chinese revolution [to] throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions” (98 [100]). – Engels, by contrast, in an article from 1857, emphasises the growth of Chinese nationalism in the wake of the conflicts with Great Britain. Throughout the piece, he ironically plays off the English “civilizationmongers” against the Chinese “barbarians”. He characterises the war in China as a “national war” waged by an insurgent nation and predicts an intensification of the crisis (MECW 15, 280 et sq. [MEW 12, 214 et sq.]).

In 1862, shortly before the Taiping Rebellion was defeated, Marx analyses the Chinese situation more comprehensively. His analysis is based on his conception of the Asiatic mode of production, which was shaped, above all, by his study of India, and according to which “unceasing change” in the political superstructure coincides with “ constant immobility in their social substructure” (MECW 19, 216 [MEW 15,514]). Marx accuses the protagonists of the CR, i.e., of the Taiping Rebellion, of striving only for “destruction without any nucleus of new construction”. The blurred line between the movement and common banditry, the adherence to the social foundations of the empire, and the “religious tinge” revealed it to be a movement “of tumultuous pseudo-activity” and “the product of a fossil social life” (217 et sqq. [514 et sqq.]). – In a letter to Kautsky written in 1895, Engels interprets the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95 as the demise of the old China, as a “total if gradual revolution of the entire economic base […], the result being a mass exodus of Chinese Coolies, to Europe included and hence, for ourselves, an acceleration of the debacle and an intensification of the conflict to the point of crisis” (MECW 50, 349 et sq. [MEW 39, 301]).

In summation, it can be said that the CR was included in Marx and Engels’s analyses primarily for the function it played for revolution in Europe; the social causes and implications for China, on the other hand, remained secondary.

2. While Marx and Engels’s remarks on China remain essentially influenced by an assumed Europe/Asia dichotomy (cf. MECW 12, 93 [MEW 9, 95]: China as “the very opposite of Europe”), Lenin’s analyses proceed from the notion of the fundamental comparability of Russian and Chinese development. Like the people of Russia, the Chinese also suffered from an “Asiatic government” and “the oppression of capital” (LW 4, 377 [375]). In his assessment of the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, he relies primarily on two articles by Pavlovich that had been published in the theoretical organ of the Social Democratic Party. The national and anti-dynastic features of the revolutionary movement, its character as “class struggle” and as a “fight against the old semi-feudal system”, were already highlighted there (1911, 372, 385).

Like Pavlovich, Lenin attaches great global importance to the revolutionary struggle of the Chinese people as it pertained to the liberation of Asia and the undermining of the European bourgeoisie’s rule. Overall, he classifies the events of 1911 as part of a bourgeois revolutionary cycle that started in 1789 (LW 17, 485, 501 [477, 493]). For a more precise determination of class relations following the revolution, Lenin draws on an essay by the leader of the revolution, Sun Yatsen (1912). Based on the “Asiatic” commonalities of all “bourgeois revolutions in Asia”, he characterises these countries’ bourgeois democracies, which were “finally being drawn into the stream of world capitalist civilisation”, as having “Narodnik colouring” (LW 18, 163 et sq. [153]). Lenin interprets Sun Yatsen’s platform as the expression of a still historically progressive bourgeoisie in the struggle against feudal conditions. While intertwined with the “socialist dreams” of avoiding the capitalist stage of development, he argues, it nevertheless objectively championed a “maximum capitalist, agrarian programme” (165 et sqq. [155 et sq.]). The social basis for the new Chinese republic is described by Lenin as “an alliance of the well-to-do peasantry and the bourgeoisie, there being no proletariat at all or one that is completely powerless” (401 [393]). Lenin’s increasing scepticism about the feasibility of Sun’s agenda is on display again in May 1913. He points to the inconsistencies of a bourgeois agricultural movement not led by the proletariat, which tends towards becoming “an alliance […] of the European bourgeoisie and the reactionary classes and sections of China” (LW 41, 282 [LW, EB 1, 282]). Given these circumstances, Lenin argues, the “democratic revolution” in China remained unfinished, the broad masses of the people were still excluded, and the republic was therefore at risk. On an international scale, however, Sun Yatsen’s movement served a progressive function: “The awakening of Asia and the beginning of the struggle for power by the advanced proletariat of Europe are a symbol of the new phase in world history” (LW 19, 86, cf. 99 et sq. [69, cf. 82 et sq.]). - In the following years, Lenin repeatedly invokes the revolutionary movement in China to summarily emphasise the importance of Asia’s revolutions, which, under the conditions of imperialism, represented wars of national liberation and were to be classified as “bourgeois-progressive” (LW 21, 304 [305]; cf. LW 22, 312 [318]).

3. At the Second World Congress of the Communist International in 1920, the issue of how to assess the CR was revisited in the discussion of the colonial question. The focus was on whether the Comintern should “support the bourgeois-democratic movements in the backward countries” (Protocol, 1921, 113 [139]). As a result of the debate, the term “bourgeois-democratic” was replaced by “nationalist-revolutionary” in order to make possible a clearer distinction between reformist and revolutionary movements. The ascribed class-content of the movement as bourgeois-democratic remained unaffected. The peasantry was characterised as representative of bourgeois-capitalist conditions, and the bourgeoisie in the oppressed countries was portrayed as “work[ing] together with the Imperialist bourgeoisie” against the revolutionary classes (113 [139 et sq.]). The Comintern decided to support bourgeois liberation movements only if they were truly revolutionary. In his “supplementary theses”, M.N. Roy, delegate from India, criticises the Eurocentrism of the proletarian parties and emphasises the colonies’ role as linchpins of the revolutionary movement. He differentiates between a bourgeois nationalist movement, which strives for national independence while preserving capitalist conditions, and a workers’ movement, which targets the property-owning classes within its own society; the two movements, he states, are completely incompatible. Moreover, Roy argues, socialist development in the colonies could be achieved while bypassing capitalism (120 et sqq. [147 et sqq.]).

The analyses developed at the Second World Congress became integrated into the programmes of the CPC, which was founded in 1921. In 1923, proceeding from these analyses, Comintern advisers initiated the First United Front of the CPC and the Guomindang (GMD), which until 1927 served as the prime example and the only successful model of cooperation between a CP and a “truly revolutionary” bourgeois party. The United Front was aimed at the political unification of the country and the achievement of national independence. In a Joint Programme, the GMD was established as the leading force of this national-revolutionary movement; top-down reforms and bottom-up revolution, i.e., the mobilisation of workers and peasants against feudal lords, were to be combined. This soon proved unsustainable in practice, however, because of a contradiction that had already been present in the analyses of the Second World Congress of the Communist International of 1920: on the one hand, the peasantry was classified as representative of bourgeois-capitalist conditions; on the other hand, it was assumed that bourgeois parties would oppose the revolutionary mobilisation of the peasants. The United Front failed, and large sections of the CPC and revolutionary mass organisations were crushed by the leaders of the GMD, who were now aligned with imperialist forces. As a result, debates took place within the Comintern and the CPC on the strategy and tactics of the CR and on a reassessment of the character of Chinese society.

With the breakdown of the United Front approaching, the Chinese question gained novel importance in the factional struggle between Stalin and the United Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek). The views represented by Trotsky and Radek in 1926 were given new weight. They had questioned the existence of a semi-feudal social structure and the bourgeois-democratic character of the Chinese Revolution, advocating instead for an immediate transition to a socialist revolution. They stated that the bourgeois and socialist stages of the revolution had been amalgamated and that the leadership lay with the proletariat, while the peasants were incapable of leading the revolution. The bourgeoisie, i.e., the GMD, was itself the object of revolution. – The majority wing of the Comintern and the CPC, at its 6th national congress, rejected the views of the United Opposition and reaffirmed the CR’s bourgeois-democratic character: it was anti-imperialist and anti-feudal, its primary content being the realisation of an agrarian revolution. However, alongside the agents of feudalism, the bourgeoisie was now deemed an opponent of the revolution, while the workers and peasants were considered its motive forces. The initial goal was to establish a “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’ soviets” under the leadership of the proletariat before transitioning to a socialist revolution. These positions constituted a rejection of notions of unique developments in China, as were assumed to be inherent in concepts such as the Asiatic mode of production. – At the beginning of the 1930s, the CPC re-emphasised the semi-colonial and semi-feudal nature of Chinese society, in order to demonstrate the necessity of a continuation of the revolution. This was a challenge to GMD ideologues, who, based on their assumptions about the unique development of China, viewed the CR as accomplished after achieving national unification and independence in 1927 under their leadership.

After the collapse of the first United Front in 1927, communist troop units from the former national army were reconstituted as the Red Army. From 1931 to 1934, seven Soviet base areas were established in the territories of Central China that were under the Red Army’s control and where radical reforms had been undertaken, including the expropriation of major landlords. Under attack by the Guomindang government’s army, the communist troops were forced to withdraw from these bases in 1934. Their embattled withdrawal passed through eleven provinces to the northern mountain range of Shaanxi, which the last troops reached in December 1936. The retreat, in which only one-tenth of the combatants who originally set out survived, would later be glorified as the “Long March” and declared a turning point and presage of future victory.

4. Faced with the national threat of Japanese imperialism since 1931 and the growing worldwide danger posed by fascism, starting in 1935, the Comintern redefined the character, strategy, and tasks of the CR; the CPC subsequently followed suit. The national anti-fascist war of resistance against the Japanese invasion was now declared the paramount task. Accordingly, the fight against the GMD was to be abandoned in favour of a new united front. The bourgeois GMD and the CPC were now presumed to have common anti-imperialist interests. In December 1938, the CPC recognised the GMD’s leadership role in the united front and pledged the support of the Red Army to the national government and armed forces. Within the CPC, this decision was preceded by arguments over the question of leadership in the revolution and the war of resistance, and over an independent CPC policy stance regarding the united front. The respective debates shaped the intraparty controversies for years to come. The focus was on questions of the application of Marxism to China and the deferral of social objectives (agricultural revolution) in order to pursue national priorities and military strategy, such as using guerilla warfare to protect the liberated areas or regular warfare against Japan alongside the troops of the national army.

Chen Shaoyu (Wang Ming) and Mao Zedong were proponents of two distinct concepts of the CR. Mao was largely able to assert his position and have it affirmed by the Seventh National Congress of the CPC in April 1945. Chen prioritised the united front as an instrument of the war of resistance and, in the long run, even as an instrument of social and democratic reform: the bourgeoisie and the urban proletariat were to be the forces that propelled social change. Chen’s strategy was based on the assumption of a unified struggle for national self-determination and anti-feudal revolution. In contrast, Mao’s position was based on the equivalence of the national and social struggle. He viewed the united front principally from a tactical perspective and planned to strengthen the position of the CPC through the continuation of social change. For Mao, the peasants were the primary drivers of the movement, and autonomy of the CPC and the liberated base areas were a priority. In his essays The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party and On New Democracy, both written towards the end of 1939, solving the national question is relegated to second place, while the revolutionary objectives are reformulated (SelWks 2, 305 et sqq., 339 et sqq. [AW 2, 353 et sqq., 395 et sqq.]). Mao characterised the CR as a “new-democratic revolution” guided by the ‘new three people’s principles’ and as “an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolution of the broad masses of the people under the leadership of the proletariat”. The form of government this should take is a “dictatorship of the united front of all revolutionary classes under the leadership of the proletariat” (327 [380]). He assigns the leading role in the new-democratic revolution to the CPC. This agenda extended well beyond the period of the United Front. It remained the foundation of politics until the early 1950s, first in the liberated base areas and then – after victory in the civil war (1945-1949) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949) – throughout the whole country.

5. In dealing with the cultural revolutionary period (1966-1976), the problem of the social position of intellectuals in the People’s Republic of China once again comes to the fore. This discussion entails an assessment of the historical character of the CR. One question that comes up in particular is whether the developments up to 1949 constituted merely a peasant revolution. However, there is no public debate over the issue. In the 1960s and 1970s, theoreticians of the New Left outside of China (including Bettelheim and Masi) hearken back to theories on the character of the CR. They discuss evaluations of the CR as a peasants' revolution, bourgeois-democratic revolution, or proletarian revolution, as well as the concept of a continuation of the revolutionary process in PR China in terms of theories of “permanent revolution”. These discussions arise out of an interest in developing a continuity of the world revolutionary process across the metropolises and the “Third World”.

Bibliography: H.C.d'Encausse, St.R.Schram (eds.), Marxism and Asia: An Introduction with Readings, London 1969; J.P.Harrison, The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921–72, New York 1972; G.Kleinknecht, Die kommunistische Taktik in China, 1921-1927: Die Komintern, die koloniale Frage und die Politik der KPCh, Cologne-Vienna 1980; D.Lowe, The Function of “China” in Marx, Lenin and Mao, Berkeley-Los Angeles 1966; M.P.Pavlovich [Pawlowitsch], “Die große chinesische Revolution”, Neue Zeit, 1911, no. 30/1; Sun Yatsen, “Demokratie und Volkstümlerideologie in China”, Le Peuple, 11.7.1912; K.A.Wittfogel, “The Marxist View of China: Part I and II”, The China Quarterly, vol. 11, 1962, no. 11, 1-20, and no. 12, 154-69; U.Wolter (ed.), Die linke Opposition in der Sowjetunion, Berlin/W 1977; The Second Congress of the Communist International: Proceedings of Petrograd Session of July 17th, and of Moscow Sessions of July 19th – August 7th, 1920, Moscow 1921.

Mechthild Leutner

Translated by Hauke Neddermann

→ Asiatic Mode of Production, Chinese Cultural Revolution, Enlightenment, Ideas of Mao Zedong, Imperialism, Peasants, Peasant movement, Permanent Revolution, Political Economy, Revolution, Second International, Theory of Revolution, Three Worlds Theory, United Front

→ asiatische Produktionsweise, Aufklärung, Bauern, Bauernbewegung, chinesische Kulturrevolution, Drei-Welten-Theorie, Einheitsfront, Imperialismus, Internationale, Mao-Zedong-Ideen, permanente Revolution, politische Ökonomie, Revolution, Revolutionstheorie

Originally published as chinesische Revolution in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 2/I: Bank bis Dummheit in der Musik, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 1995, col. 480-487.