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The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

January 29, 2010

Harold R. Isaacs. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951 [1938].

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

Originally published in 1938, the “tragic” revolution the book discusses is that of 1925-27. The tragedy lies in the revolution’s failure, and the consequent squashing of the hope for a true democratic socialist revolution in China. Isaacs provides a detailed analysis of the reasons for and culprits in this failure. First, Western imperialism led China into an unbalanced state of rapidly modernizing material conditions coupled with backward social relations. Second, the Russian engineers of the 1925-27 “Chinese Revolution” sacrificed the Chinese masses to the interests of the emerging Russian national dictatorship, namely finding an ally – any ally – in China. This led the Comintern to insist on Chinese Communist allegiance to the Guomindang. Thirdly, largely owing to this abuse, the Chinese Communists failed to “solder the links between the oppressed classes of town and country” (p. 324), which in Isaacs’ view was the peasants’ only hope for liberation from their oppressors. Isaacs’ argument benefits from an impressive array of primary sources such as documents from the Comintern and the CCP, first-hand accounts, and contemporary newspaper articles, supplemented by a number of familiar secondary sources.

In 1951, in light of the new importance and timeliness of the subject, Isaacs revised and republished the book. The first revised edition begins with a helpful preface outlining the author’s intentions in 1938 and the changes he has made in his outlook and the book’s format since that time. Despite explicitly retreating in the preface from his original “Trotskyist” approach, the Marxist character of Isaacs’ book elicited criticism from reviewers in Red-phobic 1953. Although Benjamin Schwartz (Pacific Affairs, 26.1:84-5) offered lavish praise for Isaacs’ detailed, knowledgeable and “vital” account of the 1920s, he questioned Isaacs’ use of Marxism as “a tool of analysis” (p. 84). While Schwartz merely challenged the analytical framework, William Ballis (The Far Eastern Quarterly, 12.3:359-61) heaped criticism on Isaacs for relying on allegedly communist land-data sources, “idealiz[ing] the Chinese urban proletariat,” interpreting international politics “through the colored glasses of Marxist analysis,” and viewing Lenin and Trotsky “in other than authoritarian cloaks” (p. 360).

This is an excellent narrative: it is clear, exciting, and well-balanced in evidence and interpretation. Isaacs provides a detailed yet highly digestible account of the 1925-27 revolution, its roots, and its consequences. The book is particularly interesting and useful because its 1938 perspective successfully counters the tendency for the 1949 divide to “flatten[s] the jagged course of history into an uninformative curve that hides from us too much of the meaning of both past and present” (p. 294).

On the other hand, this is definitely a “grand narrative.” Particularly in the first two chapters, where Isaacs lays out the historical background, all things appear to lead to the revolution. The past is fit into Marxist history, albeit with Chinese characteristics. For example, he states that, “Social change came belatedly to China… For China there was no chance of a gradual ascent nor the opportunity to pass through the stages of development that the dominant Western world had already left behind” (p. 23).

I also find it difficult to accept his assertion that peasants alone could not have been the basis for a democratic socialist revolution. As he puts it, “The peasantry itself, as history has abundantly shown, cannot function independently in the political arena… This has been especially true in China… Only an urban ally capable of transforming all social relations could release the peasantry from the vicious historical circle, free it from its own exploiting minority in the countryside, and help it bridge the cultural gap separating town and country” (pp. 30-1). This is a central tenet of Trotskyism, but his non-Trotskyist audience might appreciate better evidence and a more thorough explanation.

Despite these reservations, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is an invaluable resource. It provides a coherent account of a very confusing period in Chinese history. Even more importantly, it offers an appreciation of alternatives, of the paths not taken and the ensuing historical consequences.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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