Robert Louzon, China: Three Thousand Years of History, Fifty Years of Revolution, Socialist Platform, London, 1998, pp149, £5.00

ROBERT Louzon was one of the leading lights of twentieth century French revolutionary Syndicalism. A founder member of the French Communist Party, he left in 1924 when his comrades Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte were expelled for their opposition to Stalinism, and he remained an anti-Stalinist revolutionary for the rest of his life. In his 50s, he fought with the CNT militia in the Spanish revolution, and after the Second World War he resumed publication of the Syndicalist paper La revolution proletarienne at the age of 65. He died in 1976.

This book, which first appeared in French in 1950, was one of his last works. It is an ambitious and impressive work: nothing less than an attempt to provide a Marxist summary of 3000 years of Chinese history in 130 pages. To summarise so much so briefly runs the risk of being dull, but Louzon avoids this pitfall completely. He is thought-provoking, incisive, idiosyncratic and at times infuriatingly wrong-headed. He also tears down blind alleys at top speed, and writes in a convoluted style that takes some getting used to — but he is never dull. If most of what I have to say below is critical, it is because I believe that this project should be judged against the standards that Louzon clearly set himself.

The book falls into two roughly equal halves: the first from the earliest recorded history to the Opium Wars, and the second up to Mao’s victory in 1949. The first half is much the better of the two. Louzon begins by drawing attention to ‘the two principal factors in the history of China: the constant presence of nomadic barbarians at the gates of the country... and the presence of a people who... are always ready for revolt once the situation becomes intolerable’ (p12). It is the link between these two factors that is important here.

Mass class struggles were a constant feature of ancient Chinese society in a way that was not true (as far as we know) of other societies at similar stages of development. Sometimes they could overthrow a dynasty; more often they simply threw society into a state of collapse. It was typically that collapse prompted the nomadic invasions, rather than the other way round. Following the pioneering work of Owen Lattimore, we now know that the nomadic societies based to the north and north-west of China were more complex and advanced than Chinese historians would admit. It is now generally accepted that many of these societies evolved sophisticated systems of extracting tribute from successive Chinese dynasties, and that their invasions were often attempts to shore up a system that would otherwise collapse, and not just simple smash-and-grab raids.

Louzon is similarly good on geography and how it has shaped Chinese history. The nomadic peoples were a permanent threat because there is no natural boundary on the north China plain between arable land and the grasslands that could only support nomadic societies. Hence the critical importance of the walls that early city-states built, later linked up to form the Great Wall. Hence, too, the permanent tendency for the centre of gravity of Chinese society to move south to the more fertile (and more defensible) lands around the Yangzi river. (Incidentally, Louzon persistently refers to the Yangzi as the ‘Blue River’, a term I have never seen before, and a rather confusing one.)

Finally, Louzon is sharp on the seeming contradiction between the essentially unchanging basis of the Chinese economy — small-scale peasant agriculture — and the immense dynamism of China’s social and political history. He argues:

‘Commerce continually transforms everything that it touches, it is the supreme factor in the progress of communities. Periodic repetition is the law of cultivation, but constant renovation is the essence of commerce. It follows that if the history of China shows a permanent substratum, from the fact of cultivation predominating in it, overlaying it is a history of frequent revolutions and experimentations due to the importance of commerce.’ (p33)

So far, so good, and there is much here from which anyone can learn. But a Marxist history of imperial China needs to engage with two fundamental questions posed by that history. Why did Chinese society reach the highest levels of technology and urban development anywhere in the world, and then stagnate? What was the underlying mode of production in imperial China? It is not that Louzon fails to come up with definitive answers to these questions (we still lack those); it is that he does not pose the questions.

Actually, Louzon does see a variety of the first question, but he poses it wrongly, arguing that Chinese society reached its highest point of progress under the Tang dynasty (618-907). Now it is true that the Tang era was one of the most dynamic, innovative and outward-looking periods of Chinese history, and it saw fundamental advances in technology, trade and urbanisation (the Tang capital of Changan was the first city in the world to have a population of a million people). It is also true that in cultural terms, the Tang had a frontier vigour and dynamism which produced an explosion of creativity. In poetry, painting and architecture, the Tang was a golden age. But it was also a deeply unstable society, marked by continual wars with nomads and military rebellions. By the 850s, the dynasty had effectively ceased to have any control over China.

By any useful yardstick — industrial production, urbanisation, trade, population growth — the highest point of imperial China’s development was reached under the later Song dynasty, particularly the Southern Song (1126-­1279). The Song capitals of first Kaifeng and then Hangzhou grew to become even bigger than Changan. Under the Song, the technological advances of the Tang became the basis of industrial factory production: iron and steel making, shipbuilding, paper-making (the Song was the first society ever to use paper money in daily transactions), glassware, porcelain and munitions, to name only a few. Curiously, Louzon notes the immense prosperity of the Song era, saying that ‘the Song does not appear to have been troubled by great popular risings’ (p60), but he does not ask why this was so.

Chris Harman, in his recent book A People’s History of the World, argues that the nascent Song capitalist class was both too weak and too dependent on the imperial bureaucracy to fight for its distinct class interests. This seems to me to be an essential starting point, above all for understanding why it was that Chinese industry and technology stagnated, rather than regressing or collapsing. It is certainly preferable to Louzon’s argument that technological advance peaked under the Tang and thereafter declined, which is demonstrably wrong.

On the question of modes of production, Louzon merely writes: ‘Socially, China was to experience all the property forms: feudal, capitalist and peasant. A complete system of individual property was to be found there, as well as that of simple right of use, with all the forms of ownership in between.’ (p60) The editor praises this formulation, but it reminded me of the old joke about the perfect parliamentary answer: it’s short, it’s true, and it contains no useful information. The question is surely which forms predominated, and at which times?

Something very like feudalism certainly evolved in China during the Warring States era (fifth to third century BC). That system, and the economic and political power of the nobility, were comprehensively smashed by the Qin dynasty (221-208BC). Nothing like a feudal nobility ever held political power in China after that, except in periods of social collapse between dynasties. On the other hand, capitalism did not become the dominant mode of production until the end of the last century. So what was (or what were) the dominant mode (or modes) of production in the intervening 2000 years? Where did the dynamic of Chinese economic development come from? For all the weaknesses of Marx’s historical description, his notion of the Asiatic mode of production still seems to me to be the best way to answer these questions.

In focusing on these central questions, I have missed out many of the strong points of Louzon’s analysis: the central importance of irrigation, the power and resilience of the imperial bureaucracy, and the importance of China as an empire. I have equally missed out some of the worst absurdities, such as his argument that ‘the Chinese are the only people who are atheist as a whole’ (p8), or that neo-Confucian reforms in the Song dynasty were ‘none other than the key concept propounded by Lenin when he wrote State and Revolution’ (p60).

When he gets into the twentieth century, however, Louzon loses his way even more. His account of the revolution of 1925-27 is muddy, neither straight chronology nor thematic analysis. Astonishingly for a Syndicalist, he says nothing of the flowering of workers’ organisations during this period, and gives less than half a page to the Guomindang’s massacres of 1927. There is in his account no understanding of the scale of the working class’ defeat, let alone any analysis.

His account of Mao’s rise to power is no better, though here at least the fault lies mainly in Louzon’s sources, or rather source. Mao’s interview with Edgar Snow in Snow’s Red Star over China was practically the only available account of Mao’s actions in the 1920s and 1930s. Louzon repeats all the standard lies from this account: that Mao was opposed to the alliance with the Guomindang in the 1920s, that Mao had a clear strategy of guerrilla warfare when he first took to the mountains, and that Mao led an authentic peasant rebellion. Louzon likewise repeats what most revolutionaries then believed about the anti-Japanese alliance with the Guomindang: that Stalin forced it on Mao. In fact, whilst Mao took care to dress up his decision in the Comintern’s language, the decision about an alliance was made for perfectly sound nationalist reasons.

The tentative closing pages have at least the merit of recognising Mao’s new regime as a form of state capitalism, in which he was in advance of most revolutionaries at the time. They also carry an odd prophecy of the future Sino-­Soviet split, though his reasoning for it is curious, to say the least.

It is difficult to sum up such a contradictory and inconsistent book. For all my criticisms, anyone with an interest in Chinese history will find much of value in it. Even where Louzon is clearly wrong, he is often thought-provokingly so. It is a valiant and committed attempt to write Marxist history on a grand scale — even if ultimately an unsuccessful one. It would be a pity if this were to be the only legacy in English of such an important revolutionary figure.

Charlie Hore