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Agents of Disorder

Agents of Disorder

Inside China’s Cultural Revolution

Andrew G. Walder

ISBN 9780674238329

Publication date: 10/08/2019

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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.

    —Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally


  • 2020, Winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award


  • Andrew G. Walder is Denise O’Leary and Kent Thiry Professor of Sociology at Stanford University. His previous books include Fractured Rebellion, which won the Barrington Moore Book Award, and China Under Mao (both from Harvard). A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Guggenheim fellow, Walder has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Science, and the Ford Foundation.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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