Why did the Chinese party state collapse so quickly after the onset of the Cultural Revolution? The award-winning author of China Under Mao offers a surprising answer that holds a powerful implicit warning for today’s governments.
By May 1966, just seventeen years after its founding, the People’s Republic of China had become one of the most powerfully centralized states in modern history. But that summer everything changed. Mao Zedong called for students to attack intellectuals and officials who allegedly lacked commitment to revolutionary principles. Rebels responded by toppling local governments across the country, ushering in nearly two years of conflict that in places came close to civil war and resulted in nearly 1.6 million dead.
How and why did the party state collapse so rapidly? Standard accounts depict a revolution instigated from the top down and escalated from the bottom up. In this pathbreaking reconsideration of the origins and trajectory of the Cultural Revolution, Andrew Walder offers a startling new conclusion: party cadres seized power from their superiors, setting off a chain reaction of violence, intensified by a mishandled army intervention. This inside-out dynamic explains how virulent factions formed, why the conflict escalated, and why the repression that ended the disorder was so much worse than the violence it was meant to contain.
Based on over 2,000 local annals chronicling some 34,000 revolutionary episodes across China, Agents of Disorder offers an original interpretation of familiar but complex events and suggests a broader lesson for our times: forces of order that we count on to stanch violence can instead generate devastating bloodshed.
Andrew Walder is one of the most important interpreters of the Cultural Revolution working today. Agents of Disorder addresses some of the biggest questions about this extraordinary event: why did the seemingly solid Communist party-state collapse so fast? Why did people choose to join particular groups to fight the Cultural Revolution? And why did it become so violent so quickly? Using an unprecedented range of local sources, Walder’s work is a tour de force of rigor and detail, sure to change the field and provoke further debate.
Many scholars hope to affect, even change, their fields’ usual assumptions. Few manage to achieve this. Andrew Walder…has done just that. [A] path-breaking book…Those of us who reflect on Maoist China and today’s president-for-life Xi Jinping, who also crushes any local non-cooperation among Muslims and Buddhists, owe Walder a great debt for our new understanding.
A magisterial work that reveals for the first time what actually happened—and why—during the Cultural Revolution, one of the largest political upheavals in modern history. Based on thousands of local histories from counties and cities throughout China, this book completely revises our previous understandings of Cultural Revolution factional violence. Walder develops an original theory of how groups form during the shifting context of insurgencies that will also inform research on cases beyond China.
Walder tells an incredibly complex story, making a little-understood and little-researched period of the Cultural Revolution legible. He captures its myriad shifts and reversals while at the same time shedding new and important light on critical events from the perspective of local governments caught between the shifting and unpredictable demands of the center and the often tumultuous and violent social currents from below. A truly magnificent work, based on an impressive compilation of data.
Walder puts refreshing new emphasis on historical contingency, human uncertainty, and the evolving redefinition of political interests along a chain of contentious episodes. Empirically and theoretically, Agents of Disorder is a valiant achievement deserving careful study, not least by those who may imagine they’ve already grasped every lesson of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Not only upends the traditional assumption of historical sociologists that revolutions usually feature subaltern classes striking out against their superiors, but it also investigates how the revolution occurred in urban and rural China…Dismantles the notion that the Cultural Revolution was a top-down and streamlined process…An excellent example of historical sociology done right.
A challenge to the conventional wisdom that cannot be ignored.
Excellent…With its wealth of new data and evidence Walder’s book helps readers to better understand the nature of mass factional politics during this still largely shrouded historical period and makes a significant contribution to broader debates about contentious politics in the Chinese context.
Written with theoretical clarity, methodological rigor, and narrative elegance, this magisterial book has refreshed our understanding of the Cultural Revolution and has made important contributions to political and historical sociology…The best analytic work about the Cultural Revolution and hence a must read for anyone who is interested in this movement as well as Chinese politics.
The key finding of Walder’s convincing and thought-provoking study is that it first and foremost was various state actors that caused an inside-out collapse of the Chinese party-state and triggered a wave of collective violence throughout the nation.
- 2020, Winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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