Revolution by telegraph? Stalin on the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution

The rush of Christmas is over, with three generations filling our household. So now I can relax … and study a little more Stalin.

Mao Zedong is usually credited with developing a peasant basis for socialist revolutions, thereby breaking with the proletarian emphasis of the Russian Revolution. It may come as a surprise to find that Stalin emphasises again and again the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution. In 1927, Stalin wrote:

What, then, is to be done at this moment? The agrarian revolution in China must be broadened and deepened. Mass workers’ and peasants’ organisations of every kind must be created and strengthened—from trade-union councils and strike committees to peasant associations and peasant revolutionary committees—with a view to converting them, as the revolutionary movement grows and achieves success, into organisational and political bases for the future Soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies (Works, volume 9, p. 242).

To be sure, Stalin did see the agrarian revolution as a phase that would be followed by the leadership of the proletariat in the establishment of soviets. Mao ensured that the agrarian basis would remain the core of the Chinese Revolution.

But did Stalin attempt to dictate the progress of the Chinese Revolution, insisting on ideological and practical conformity? Not so, it seems. He argues strongly against an ‘artificially transplanted “Moscow Sovietisation”’ (p. 233). And he castigates those who ‘sincerely believe that the revolution in China can be directed, so to speak, by telegraph, on the basis of the universally recognised general principles of the Comintern, disregarding the national peculiarities of China’s economy, political system, culture, manners and customs, and traditions (p. 338).

Mao with peasants 02

Mao with peasants 03


2 thoughts on “Revolution by telegraph? Stalin on the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution

  1. just a silly but honest question. Do you remember any policy suggestion, proposal, initiative, etc. which originated and grew directly from the grassroots or party cadres and moved up to top echelons of the decision-makers? I mean not the trivial, bureaucratic or technocratic decisions on daily matters, but on big issues? Iam asking honestly because for all those I read from history of the real socialism experiences or non-ruling communist party histories I don’t remember such initiatives. All the policy decisions seems to come from a person or a very small group of party leaders, at best. Of course, many decisions may appear so a posteriori, but I doubt. One may give the example of self-management experiments of Yugoslavia; but again I mean about more general, bigger issues on a national scale. Would we assume that Tito held the conscience of Yugoslavian people, or Stalin knew best of Chinese peasantry?
    Comradely thoughts!

    1. Where to begin? Let me stay with the Russian Revolution.
      1. The decision to develop red guards in response to the Potemkin mutiny in 1905.
      2. Rethinking revolutionary practice after the outbreak of the First World War and especially the revolution of February 1917.
      3. The enabling of the October Revolution by the massive swing to the Bolsheviks in the final few months (with not a little thanks to the failed military offensive in June and the attempted Kornilov putsch).
      4. The land decree soon after the October Revolution, in response to peasant appropriations of land and driving out landlords.
      5. The collectivisation drive, which may be described as the third phase of the revolution, in response to entrenched kulak practices.
      6. Constitution of the USSR, as the first affirmative action constitution, in response to ethnic diversity.

      Bear in mind that the Bolsheviks followed closely the Erfurt model, outlined clearly by Kautsky after the Erfurt congress of 1891: this was the union of socialist intellectuals with the working class. Beyond that, the Bolsheviks had to make up much of their platform on the run, since, as Lenin recognised, they usually lagged theoretically behind the revolutionary movement.

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