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May 17, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright May 17, 2009 Daniel Little. Used by permission.


With all the May anniversary dates to mark, we missed the May 5th birthday of Karl Marx (a man to whose thought the Chinese Communist Party still pays homage, even if you wouldn’t know it from their economic policies). Had we been on our toes, we might have found a China-specific way to mark that date, like looking back to how Marx, in his journalist mode, wrote about the Taiping Uprising, an event that the CCP would later treat as a precedent for their own revolutionary struggle. Well, in the spirit of better late than never, here’s what one of our past contributors, Daniel Little, had to say about just that subject on a blog of his own, in a piece that he’s letting us repost in its entirety here…

It is interesting to observe how Europe’s greatest revolutionary, Karl Marx (1818-1883), thought about China’s greatest revolution in the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). We might imagine that this relentless advocate for underclass interests might have cheered for the poor peasants of the Taiping Heavenly Army. But this was not the case. Marx wrote about the Taiping Rebellion several times in the New York Daily Tribune and other newspapers, and his analysis and his sympathies are fascinating. His articles are as close to blog postings as one could get in the middle of the nineteenth century; they are topical, opinionated, and pretty revealing about his underlying assumptions.

The Taiping rebellion was enormous in every way: perhaps 20 million deaths, armies approaching a million soldiers, sustained Taiping control of large swatches of Chinese territory and cities, and an extended time duration of fighting (about fifteen years). The American civil war took place during roughly the same time period; and the Taiping rebellion was many times more destructive. It is a truly fascinating period of world history, and one that had important consequences in the twentieth century. (Mao and the Chinese Communists largely represented the Taiping rebellion as a proto-communist uprising.) So how did Marx respond to this social catastrophe? In a thumbnail — his observations show a remarkable blindness to a contemporary historical event that seems tailor-made for the framework of his own theories of history and underclass politics.