With a background of the demoralising results of the opium war, a collapsing social order, peasant revolts against famine and an unbearable tax burden, an irreversible collapse of the State machinery, and the penetration of foreign capitalist companies, both the peasantry as well as important factions of the property owning classes, who had no allegiance to the ruling Manchu dynasty, embarked upon a revolt in 1850 – which became known as the Taiping revolt.
Driven by a strong hatred against the exploitation by the Manchu dynasty, peasants threw themselves into revolts. Their movement merged with the aspirations of a young trading class, eager to promote trade and industry, which also wanted to get rid of the fetters of the Manchu dynasty.
Often instigated by secret societies, the revolts started off in the south of the country, spreading further north. The movement quickly received support from hundreds of thousands of peasants and opponents of the Manchu dynasty. Even a separate state was founded in 1851 - Taiping Tienkuo (“Heavenly empire of peace”), and a “heavenly Emperor” was proclaimed (Hung). The movement set up a monarchy with a strong theocratic tinge, directed against the power and privileges of the landed aristocracy. Expressing the aspirations of the peasantry to fight against its exploitation, private property was declared to be abolished, only collective financial management and grain storages were allowed, common ownership of land was proclaimed, farm land was collectivised and no longer considered as private property, taxes were lowered, equality of men and women was proclaimed, foot binding forbidden, free choice of husband/wife, the consumption of opium, tobacco and alcohol forbidden. Artisans produced articles which were distributed under the supervision of the State.
In 1852/53 the Taiping regime advanced its troops swiftly through Hunan and conquered Nanking, proclaiming the city as the capital of their state, which they maintained from 1853-1864. The Taiping rebels set up an army of more than 50,000 soldiers who controlled large areas of south and south eastern China. However, in 1864 the Taiping edifice collapsed. In a series of bloody wars, more than 20 million people got killed. British and French troops played a decisive role in the crushing of the movement by the Manchu dynasty. The Indian communist M.N.Roy rightly mentions some of the reasons for the defeat, when he wrote, “The weakness of the capitalist mode of production, the immaturity amounting to practical absence of the proletariat, which also resulted from the inadequate development of the capitalist mode of production, and lastly foreign intervention – all these contributed to the defeat of the first great movement which objectively tended towards the creation of a modern China”.1 Roy however saw too much revolutionary potential in this movement. In an earlier article2 we dealt with the limits of the Taiping movement. For reasons of space we cannot dwell on these in more detail.
Marx made the following assessment of the movement and its limits: “What is original about this Chinese revolution is its subject. They are not aware of any task, apart from the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are a still greater abomination for the popular masses than for the old rulers. Their destiny appears to be no more than to oppose conservative stagnation with a reign of destruction grotesque and loathsome in form, a destruction without any new or constructive kernel whatever (...) The Taiping rising is the offspring of a fossile social life”.3
Unable to throw off the weight of the decaying social order, unable to turn the penetration of capitalism which was being imposed by foreign countries into a powerful stimulation for a broader capitalist development, the ruling class in China could not make a bourgeois revolution, which would have paved the way for the unhampered development of capitalism. Thus China was made into a cripple in the 19th century – leaving the country with fetters that it was to carry over into the 20th century.
1 Roy, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China, New Delhi, 1946, p. 113
2 International Review no 81 & 84
3 Marx: 7.7.1862 in Die Presse, “On China”