Gilbert on social facts

I am currently thinking about the topic of “organizational actors”, and Margaret Gilbert’s arguments about social actors are plainly relevant to this topic. It seems worthwhile therefore to reproduce a review I wrote of Gilbert’s book On Social Facts (1989) in 1993. It is a tribute to the power of Gilbert’s ideas that the book has much of the same power thirty years later that it had when it was first published. I also find it interesting that the concerns I had in the 1990s about “collective actors” and “plural subjects” expressed in this review have continued in my thinking about the social world through the current date. I continue to believe that constructs like collective actors require microfoundations that establish how they work at the level of individual “socially constituted, socially situated” individual human beings. I refer to this view as “methodological localism”; link.

I also find it interesting that my own views about social action derive, not from philosophy, but from immersion in the literatures of contentious politics and the concrete pathways through which individuals are led to mobilization and collective action. Unlike the methodological individualism associated with rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, and unlike the social holism that all too often derives from purely philosophical considerations, this literature emphasizes the actions and thoughts of individuals without making narrow and singe-dimensional assumptions about the nature of practical rationality. I learned through my study of the millenarian rebellions of late Imperial China that rebels had many motivations and many reasons for mobilization, and that good historical research is needed to disentangle the organizations, actors, and stresses that led to mobilization and rebellion in a particular region of China. The participants in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion or the Nian Rebellion in North China were not a plural subject. (For exposition of these ideas see chapter five of my Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (1989), “Theories of peasant rebellion”.) I have included an excerpt from that chapter on the topic of collective action at the end of this post because it illustrates an “actor-centered” approach to collective action. It presents a clear counter-perspective to Gilbert’s views of “plural subjects”.

Readers may also be interested in a post written in 2009 on the topic of “Acting as a Group” (link).



Margaret Gilbert’s On Social Facts is an intelligent, closely argued and extensively analyzed treatment of the problem of social collectivity. What is a social group? What distinguishes a group from a random set of individuals—e.g. the set consisting of W. V. O. Quine, Madonna, and Napoleon? Is a social class—e.g. the English working class in the 1880s—a social group? Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology and the chief focus of empirical social science. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”.

The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. In later chapters Gilbert extends her conception of collectivities and plural subjects by considering several other important social notions: the idea of a social fact in Durkheim’s sense, the idea of a collective belief, and the idea of a social convention. In each case Gilbert argues that the concept of a plural subject supports a plausible and intuitively convincing analysis of the social concept in question. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert’s account of social conventions is developed through extensive discussion of David Lewis’s influential formulation of this concept.

Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber (and by implication, the premises of rational choice theory), by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under (narrowly) individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3). Does it? I think not. An individualist is free to acknowledge that individuals have beliefs that refer to other persons and groups of persons; the position permits reference to shared purposes and actions involving a collection of persons deliberately orienting their actions towards a shared purpose. What individualism requires is simply that these are all the aggregate results of individual states of mind, and that the behavior of the ensemble is to be explained by reference to the beliefs and intentions of the participants.

An important test case for Gilbert’s account is the problem of collective action. Rational choice theory places much emphasis on public goods problems and the phenomenon of free-riding. How does Gilbert’s conception of plural subjects treat the problem? It appears to this reader that Gilbert makes collective action too easy. Plural subjects (groups) have purposes; individuals within these groups express quasi-readiness to perform their part of the shared action; and—when circumstances are right—the group acts collectively to bring about its collective goals. “The people concerned would be jointly ready jointly to perform a certain action in certain circumstances” (p. 409). She speaks of group will or communal will (p. 410). But the actions of a group are still the result of the choices made by constituent individuals. And however much the individual may align him- or herself with the collective project, the collective behavior is still no more than the sum of the actions taken by particular individuals. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge the endurance of private, individual interests that remain prominent for individual agents—with the result that we should expect individuals’ actions to sometimes involve free-riding, defection, and favoring of private over collective interests. It seems to this reader, then, that Gilbert leans too far in the direction of the Rousseauvian “general will” interpretation of social action.

How important for the social sciences is the notion of a social group or collectivity? Gilbert’s view is that this concept is foundational; it is the basis for a unitary definition of the subject matter of the social sciences. This overstates the importance of collectivities, it seems to this reader: there are important instances of social explanation that do not involve analysis of groups in Gilbert’s sense, and whose explanatory frameworks do not refer to groups, their behavior, their shared beliefs, or their collective intentions and self-understandings. A few examples might include neo-malthusian analysis of the relation between economic change and demographic variables; analysis of the effects of changes of the transport system on patterns of settlement and economic activity; and explanation of patterns of historical processes of urbanization in terms of changing economic and political institutions. These examples explain social phenomena as the aggregate result of large numbers of rational individual actions. They commonly refer to impersonal social structures and circumstances that function as constraints and opportunities for individuals. And they make no inherent reference to the forms of group collectivity to which Gilbert refers.

This is a rich book, and one that repays careful reading. It will be of particular interest to philosophers of social science and social philosophers, and the level of philosophical rigor will interest philosophers in other fields as well.


Here is a relevant excerpt from Understanding Peasant China, published in the same year as On Social Facts, on collective action as the composition of individual actors who are mobilized around a shared set of goals.

Rebellion is an example of collective action; but this concept requires some analysis, for not all forms of mass behavior constitute collective action. A collective action involves at least the idea of a collective goal (that is, a goal which participants in the event share as the aim of their actions), and it suggests some degree of coordination among individuals in pursuit of that goal. Thus a mass demonstration against the government is a collective action, whereas the panicked retreat through the streets after troops have dispersed the demonstration is not. Both are forms of mass behavior, but only the demonstration has the features of collective intentionality and coordination that would constitute a collective action. We may define a collective action, then, as the aggregation of a number of individuals performing intentional, coordinated actions that are intended to help attain some shared goal or purpose. This account distinguishes collective action from other forms of mass behavior in which the individuals do not intend to contribute to a group effect—for example, a panicked stampede in a football stadium, a run on a bank, or a cycle of hoarding food during a famine.

Collective actions can be classified according to the kind of shared goals that guide the individuals who participate in them—private interests and group interests. In some cases a collective action is inspired by the immediate gains available to each participant through coordinated action; in others, the action is inspired by the shared belief that the action will lead to an outcome that will benefit the group. An example of a collective action motivated by private interest would be a coordinated attack on a granary during a famine. No individual family has the strength to attack the granary by itself, but through coordinated efforts a group of fifty families may succeed. Each participant has the same goal—to acquire grain for subsistence—but the participants’ aims are private. By contrast, a demonstration by Polish workers in support of the Solidarity movement would appear to be motivated by a perception of group interest—in this case, the interest that Polish workers have as a group in representation by an independent labor union.

As we have seen in other contexts, the prospect of collective action raises the possibility of free riding: if the benefits of collective action are indivisible and undeniable to nonparticipants, it would be rational for the self-interested individual to not participate. To the extent that the potential benefits of a collective action are public rather than private, and to the extent that the action is designed to produce distant rather than immediate benefits, collective action theory predicts that it will be difficult to motivate rational individuals in support of the action.

Another important factor in the success or failure of collective action, besides the character and timing of benefits to members, is the idea of assurance: potential contributors’ confidence in the probability of success of the joint enterprise. As Elster, Hardin, and others show, the level of assurance is critical to the decisions of potential contributors. If success is widely believed to be unlikely, potential contributors will be deterred from joining the collective action. An important dimension of assurance is the likelihood that other potential contributors will act. Each must judge the probability that enough people will support the action and so make success more likely. One central task of leadership and organization is to bolster the assurance of each member of the group in the likely support of other members. (UPC 147-149)

Subsistence ethic as a causal factor

In his pathbreaking 1976 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, James Scott offers an explanation of popular politics based on the idea of a broadly shared “subsistence ethic” among the underclass people of Vietnam and Malaysia. Earlier postings (hidden transcripts, moral economy) have discussed several aspects of Scott’s contributions. Here I want to focus on the causal argument that Scott offers, linking the subsistence ethic to the occurrence of rebellion.

Scott’s view is that the ensemble of values and meanings current in a society have causal consequences for aggregate facts about the forms of political behavior that arise in that society. Speaking of the peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia of the 1930s Scott writes,

We can learn a great deal from [peasant] rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide . . . the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (Scott 1976:3-4)

This passage represents a complex explanatory hypothesis about the sources of rebellion. Scott holds, first, that peasant rebels in Indochina in the 1930s shared the main outlines of a sense of justice and exploitation. This is a system of moral values concerning the distribution of material assets between participants (landlord, state, peasant, landless laborer) and the use of power and authority over the peasant. Second, this passage supposes that the values embodied in this sense of justice are motivationally effective: when the landlord or the state enacts policies which seriously offend this sense of justice, the peasant is angered and indignant, and motivated to take action against the offending party. Offense to his sense of justice affects the peasant’s actions. Third, Scott asserts that this individual motivational factor aggregates over the peasantry as a whole to a collective disposition toward resistance and rebellion; that is, sufficient numbers of peasants were motivated by this sense of indignation and anger to engage in overt resistance. On this account, then, the subsistence ethic–its right of a subsistence floor and the expectations of reciprocity which it engenders–is a causal antecedent of rebellion. It is a factor whose presence and characteristics may be empirically investigated and which enhances the likelihood of various social events through identifiable mechanisms.

The subsistence ethic may be described quite simply. Scott writes, “we can begin, I believe, with two moral principles that seem firmly embedded in both the social patterns and injunctions of peasant life: the norm of reciprocity and the right to subsistence” (167). Villagers have a moral obligation to participate in traditional practices of reciprocity–labor sharing, contributions to disadvantaged kinsmen or fellow villagers, etc. And village institutions and elites alike have an obligation to respect the right of subsistence of poor villagers.

Claims on peasant incomes . . . were never legitimate when they infringed on what was judged to be the minimal culturally defined subsistence level; and second, the product of the land should be distributed in such a way that all were defined a subsistence niche. (10)

Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

We can identify a fairly complex chain of causal reasoning in Scott’s account. First, the subsistence ethic is a standing condition in peasant society with causal consequences. It is embodied in current moral psychologies of members of the group and in the existing institutions of moral training through which new members are brought to share these values. Through the workings of social psychology this ethic leads individuals to possess certain dispositions to behave. The features and strength of this systems of values are relatively objective facts about a given society. In particular, it is possible to investigate the details of this ethic through a variety of empirical means: interviews with participants, observation of individual behavior, or analysis of the content of the institutions of moral training. Call this ensemble of institutions and current moral psychologies the “embodied social morality” (ESM).

In line with the idea that the subsistence ethic is a standing causal condition, Scott notes that the effectiveness of shared values varies substantially over different types of peasant communities. “The social strength of this ethic . . . varied from village to village and from region to region. It was strongest in areas where traditional village forms were well developed and not shattered by colonialism–Tonkin, Annam, Java, Upper Burma–and weakest in more recently settled pioneer areas like Lower Burma and Cochinchina” (Scott 1976:40). Moreover, these variations led to significant differences in the capacity of affected communities to achieve effective collective resistance. “Communitarian structures not only receive shocks more uniformly but they also have, due to their traditional solidarity, a greater capacity for collective action. . . . Thus, the argument runs, the more communal the village structure, the easier it is for a village to collectively defend its interests” (202).

We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

What this account does not highlight — and what is emphasized by several other theories we’ve discussed elsewhere (post, post, post, post) — are the organizational features that underlie successful mobilization. Instead, Scott’s account focuses on the motivational features that permit a group to be rallied to the risky business of rebellion.

eighteen forty-eight

The revolutions of 1848 were the stage upon which the “spectre haunting Europe” danced. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Alexandre Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous other critical observers of Europe’s trajectory looked at 1848 as a moment of continent-wide social and political revolution. Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution is a very interesting effort to synthesize the movements and events of the year in a specific attempt to try to assess the degree to which events in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan, and dozens of other European cities hang together as a “year of revolution.” It’s worth reading — even for those for whom the history is pretty familiar.

One reason that the book is so interesting is that the period itself is fascinating — the events, the social movements and causes, the mechanisms through which social contention spread and intensified, and the personalities who were drawn into engagement and commentary. The three men pictured above — Tocqueville, Herzen, and Bakunin — are only a sliver of the powerful and enduring personalities who played important roles during the critical weeks and months of unrest in a variety of cities. Another reason for the interest of the book is Rapport’s effort to separate out some of the causes and claims that led to mass protest in city after city — relief of impoverishment, anger at the impersonal economic relations of the time, and the claims of ethnic and national groups for self-determination. Fundamentally, Rapport suggests that mobilization and political demands flowed from two basic issues: the crushing poverty that segments of urban society experienced at mid-century, exacerbated by financial crisis and crop failures (Paris, Berlin), and the demand for political autonomy for national and ethnic groups (Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary). Finally, the book is distinguished by its effort to treat the full canvas of unrest and violence across much of the continent — not simply focusing on France, as one is sometimes inclined to do in thinking about 1848.

Tocqueville’s Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 is a particularly intimate view of the events in Paris in spring, 1848. Tocqueville was a Deputy of the National Assembly and an aristocrat, and in January 1848 he gave a prescient speech in the Chamber of Deputies:

I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano … can you not sense, by a sort of instinctive intuition … that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel … the wind of revolution in the air? (quoted in Rapport, 42)

In Recollections he chronicles his own experiences only a few months later, walking the streets of Paris during the street fighting in February 1848. He writes of his experience of February 23, 1848:

I took my leave early and went straight to bed. Though my house was quite near the Foreign Office, I did not hear the firing which so greatly changed our fate, and I went to sleep unaware that I had seen the last day of the July Monarchy. (Recollections, 35)

As I left my bedroom the next day, the 24th February, I met the cook who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself and poured out a sorrowful rigmarole from which I could understand nothing but that the government was having the poor people massacred. I went down at once, and as soon as I had set foot in the street I could for the first time scent revolution in the air: the middle of the street was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages, or people walking; one heard none of the usual street vendors’ cries; little frightened groups of neighbours talked by the doors in lowered voices; anxiety or anger disfigured every face. I met one of the National Guard hurrying along, rifle in hand, with an air of tragedy. I spoke to him but could learn nothing save that the government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). (36)

Rapport describes the massacre to which Tocqueville’s cook and the National Guardsman apparently refer, as being the instigating event that led to successful insurrection in February. It took place on rue des Capucines:

When the marchers came to a halt, they pressed against the soldiers, and the officer, apparently hoping to nudge them back a little, ordered his men to ‘Present bayonets!’ As the troops performed the manoeuvre, a mysterious shot burst into the night air. In a knee-jerk response the nervous soldiers let off a volley, the bullets killing or wounding fifty people. (52)

Tocqueville continues with his stroll on the morning of February 24:

The boulevard along which we passed presented a strange sight. There was hardly anyone to be seen, although it was nearly nine o’clock in the morning; no sound of a human voice could be heard; but all the little sentry boxes the whole way along that great street seemed on the move, oscillating on their bases and occasionally falling with a crash, while the great trees along the edge came tumbling into the road as if of their own accord. These acts of destruction were the work of isolated individuals who set about it silently, methodically and fast, preparing materials for the barricades that others were to build. It looked exactly like some industrial undertaking, which is just what it was for most of those taking part. (38)

(I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to take a group of students on a walking tour of the sites that Tocqueville mentions in Recollections — though many of the locations must have disappeared in the work of Haussmann in reconfiguring the urban geography of Paris. Timothy Clark has some very interesting analysis of Haussmann’s designs in The Painting of Modern Life.)

Marx’s writings of the events of February and June in France are more analytical and more political at a nuts-and-bolts level. Marx’s face-to-face experience of the events was more fleeting than Tocqueville’s — Rapport recounts Marx’s rather unsuccessful efforts as a political speaker, attempting to raise class consciousness (231). (Blanqui and Proudhon both seem to have been more successful in this vein.) But Marx followed the events carefully through available journalism, and he made every effort to interpret the comings and goings in a way that made sense to him from the framework of historical materialism and politics as class conflict. Here is how Marx described the outcome of the bloody June repression of the revolution in Paris:

The Paris workers have been overwhelmed by superior forces; they have not succumbed to them. They have been beaten, but it is their enemies who have been vanquished. The momentary triumph of brutal violence has been purchased with the destruction of all the deceptions and illusions of the February revolution, with the dissolution of the whole of the old republican party, and with the fracturing of the French nation into two nations, the nation of possessors and the nation of the workers. The tricolour republic now bears only one colour, the colour of the defeated, the colour of blood. It has become the red republic. (N.Hr.Z., 29 June 1848)

There remained only one way out: to set one section of the proletariat against the other. For this purpose the Provisional Government formed twenty-four battalions of Mobile Guards, each composed of a thousand young men between fifteen and twenty. For the most part they belonged to the lumpenproletariat, which in all towns, forms a mass quite distinct from the industrial proletariat. It is a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all sorts, living off the garbage of society, people without a definite trace, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu, varying according to the cultural level of their particular nation, never able to repudiate their lazzaroni character…. Thus the Paris proletariat was confronted by an army of 24,000 youthful, strong, foolhardy men, drawn from its own midst. The workers cheered the Mobile Guard as it marched through Paris! (Eighteenth Brumaire, 52-53)

For me, one of the most interesting questions about 1848 is also the most basic: were these disturbances “revolutionary,” or were they something different and perhaps less historically significant over the long sweep of the century? Were perhaps the “February days” better described as simply a short period of civil unrest and plebeian rioting; and were the “June days” simply a show-down with a state and military increasingly willing to use force to exert its will? And might we think that it is best to look at Berlin, Milan, Vienna, and Paris in 1848 as largely separate social upheavals brought together in a relatively short period of time, but lacking the internal connections that would constitute a large revolution? In other words, was 1848 really a “year of revolution”, as Rapport says in his subtitle, or was it less dramatically, a year of unrest, rioting, and eventual political change?

One reason for posing the question in these terms is the fact that the concept of “revolution” is a very imposing one. When we think of “revolutions,” we think of the great examples — France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949. We think of organized revolutionary parties; mass movements; political contest over control of the state; a program of fundamental social and economic change; and eventual seizure of state power. Against this sweeping set of unifying ideas, one might say that 1848 never reached this threshold of significance and unity.

But perhaps this way of putting the question gets it backwards. Perhaps it is the “great” revolutions that need a second look — as Rapport suggests somewhere in a single sentence. Perhaps it is the Russian Revolution that has been over-dramatized, and the widespread social and political upheavals of 1848 are more genuinely revolutionary than the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in one corner of Europe. The upheavals across Europe in 1848 are continental in scope; they involve a confluence of related claims (for autonomy for national groups, for poverty relief, for a democratic voice in government); and they did in fact result in “regime change” in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. And, as Rapport, Tocqueville, and Marx seem to agree — by June 1848 in France, at least, there was a polarization around class lines and the primacy of the social question.

So it’s a simple question, really: were there any “revolutions of 1848”?

Marx and the Taipings

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.

In 1853 Marx wrote a piece for the Daily Tribune called “Revolution in China and in Europe” that encapsulates his own understanding of what the Taiping revolution was, and what brought it about. He lays the largest causal role on the effects of the Opium Wars a decade earlier. English cannons smashed the appearance of invincible power and authority of the Imperial Chinese state and imposed humiliating conditions on the Chinese nation. “Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces.” And, simultaneously, trade and financial penetration by the European powers occurred in ways that were almost fatally deleterious to the Chinese economy and polity. Forced opium trade led to a rapid depletion of Chinese silver reserves; and the forced availability of English textiles led to severe dislocation for Chinese textile workers. “In China the spinners and weavers have suffered greatly under this foreign competition, and the community has become unsettled in proportion.”

Nine years later Marx published another article on the Taiping rebellion, this time in the German newspaper, Die Presse. The article, “Chinese Affairs,” begins with a pretty remarkable bit of Asiatic stereotyping:

Some time before the tables began to dance, China–this living fossil–started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure. (442)

In this piece he picks up a somewhat different theme from that of the earlier article. Here he offers an interpretation of the Taiping rebellion against the backdrop of Manchu colonialism: “Why should there not be initiated, after 300 years, a movement to overthrow it?” So the 1853 theory postulates the weakening of the Chinese social order as a chief cause, while the 1862 theory postulates a nationalistic motivation — a desire of Han people to overthrow Manchu rule. (An irony here is that the Taiping movement emerged with key support from Hakka people, a cultural minority within the Han population.)

The interpretation that Marx offers for the occurrence of a vast rebellion in China, then, is largely an exogenous one: war, trade, and European intrusion led to a total disruption of China’s social order; Manchu colonial rule created nationalistic unrest; and rebellion ensued.

Marx then goes on to a description of the nature of the rebellion and the rebels.

What is original in this Chinese revolution are only its bearers. They are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. It seems that their vocation is nothing else than to set against the conservative disintegration of China, its destruction, in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance. (443)

There are no agents in this description, no social program, and no agenda for change. Instead, there is only blind violence and destruction. Marx quotes with evident approval the dispatch of Mr. Bruce, the English Ambassador to Peking, who decries the violence and disorder of the Taiping armies. And Bruce’s central observation is the violence and rapaciousness of the Taiping armies, stealing or destroying all property in the regions they controlled.

Notice what Marx’s analysis does not do. It does not identify the class nature of the Taiping movement. It does not ask what were the social causes that led Chinese peasants to follow the Taiping armies. And it does not ask what was the social program of the Taiping movement. The Taipings are represented as a cipher — just an irrational uprising of millions of passive followers.

So whatever happened to the tools of historical analysis that Marx recommended — the forces and relations of production, the concrete circumstances of class relations, the intimate connection between material conditions of life and political behavior, and the emphasis on exploitation and rebellion? Why was Marx not disposed to ask the basic questions about the Chinese case: who are these people? What are the social relations from which they emerge? And what are they attempting to bring about in their rebellion? Why, in short, didn’t we get something more akin to The Civil War in France, with an effort at a detailed social and political analysis of the uprising?

It is hard to escape the answer to this question: it is Eurocentrism in the extreme, and a consequent inability to see the implications of his own categories of analysis for this otherwise intriguing case. This isn’t exactly news, of course. But it does underline the importance for today’s historians of finding ways of treating world history without imposing the categories of European experience. A China-centered analysis of the Taiping rebellion has a very different look from the sketch we find in Marx’s descriptions. (See an earlier posting on historical comparisons for more on this point.)

There is a great deal of very good contemporary historical research on the Taiping rebellion. Here are a handful of good contemporary treatments:

Cole, James H. 1981. The People Versus the Taipings: Bao Lisheng’s Righteous Army of Dongan. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1970. Rebellion and its enemies in late imperial China, militarization and social structure, 1796-1864, Harvard East Asian series, 49. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1977. Origins of the Taiping Vision: Cross-cultural Dimensions of a Chinese Rebellion. Comparative Studies in Society and History 19 (3):350-66.
———. 1978. The Taiping Rebellion. In The Cambridge History of China v. 10, edited by D. Twitchett and J. K. Fairbank.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1996. God’s Chinese son: the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wagner, Rudolf G. 1982. Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of Calif.

These histories bring out many different aspects of the Taiping story, and they don’t all agree. They also bring out an element that is entirely missing in Marx’s comments — the influence of Christian missionaries on the formation of Taiping ideology. But what they all agree on is that the Taiping movement was socially complex, with a strong ideology, a very specific set of demands about property and social institutions, and pretty complex military relations. And they certainly agree that the relationship between Manchu rule, European colonialism, and internal social factors is far more complex than Marx’s story allows.

Both articles discussed here (as well as a large number of postings on India) are included in Karl Marx on Colonialism & Modernization: His Despatches And Other Writings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa, a volume edited and introduced by Shlomo Avineri.

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