A fundamental question that has concerned social scientists since Barrington Moore is the political transformations that accompanied agrarian societies’ transitions to modern economy. One paradigmatic case is the peasant-based Communist revolution in China, the causes of which have been the subject of a long-standing debate. Scholars have emphasized peasant proletarianization, Communist leadership in peasant nationalism, the attraction of their socio-economic reforms, their effective mobilization, Nationalists’ failures, and geographical conditions. Based on county gazetteers and administrative records of 154 counties in the most heavily contested region during the crucial years, we conduct the first multivariate local-level analysis of revolution. The results show little support for existing narratives. Instead, they substantiate what we call the “Tocqueville-Fei thesis”, that state centralization in agrarian bureaucratic polities inadvertently facilitated social revolution. The state’s effort to penetrate local communities undermined traditional governance structures, upsetting the balance between the state and local norms/elites and turning state agents into unbridled predators on peasants, which created favorable conditions for the Communists. This study has implications for understanding the modernization of agrarian societies and the dynamics of social change, and casts new light on the long-term trajectory of the state-society relationship in China.
(This is a collaborative work with Ivan Png, Junhong Chu and Yeh-ning Chen)
Xiaohong Xu is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. His primary research interests include comparative historical analysis, social movements, and cultural sociology. He received his PhD from Yale University in 2014. His work has appeared in American Sociological Review and Critical Historical Studies, among others.