This is a short episode just introducing you to the podcast. Matthew Rothwell is your host. The theme is the history of revolutionary ideas, starting with background to the Chinese Revolution. For Dr. Rothwell’s book on Maoism in Latin America, click here. For a shorter introduction to his work, see this article. Full audio of the Malcolm X speech excerpted in this episode, “Message to the Grassroots,” is on YouTube.
Welcome to the first episode of the People’s History of Ideas podcast.
In this episode, I’m going to talk about why I’m launching this podcast and what it’s all about.
First off, I’m a historian. And a big part of my motivation for studying history was summed up by Malcolm X in his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots:”
“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours. And once you see how they got theirs straight, then you know how you can get yours straight.”
My goal in producing this podcast is to contribute historical knowledge to the communities of people who are thinking about and confronting the crises the world is facing. I think that the more historical knowledge and context that people have in evaluating our current crises, ultimately people will be better equipped to take on those crises.
One of the principles I advocate for is to think big, not small. I say think global before you think local, because if you just think local, you’re probably missing some important context.
And so, in that spirit, my starting point in putting together this podcast is the crisis that the whole world is facing right now. Climate change is creating a global crisis which is only going to become more acute in the years to come. This is a challenge that humanity can come to together to address, but the current direction that things are going is that the wealthy countries are locking their doors, trying to find ways to preserve their standards of living at the expense of vulnerable people in the poorer countries.
And while it’s not new that problems of resource scarcity and wealth distribution which could be solved through cooperation and the global adoption of egalitarian values are instead continually reproduced and exacerbated by the cruel greed of the elites who run the planet; it is true that the scale of the oncoming climate crisis could produce genocides to rival and even surpass the worst crimes which human history has seen thus far.
It does not seem like an accident that as the climate crisis comes more sharply into view on the horizon, ultra-nationalist and fascistic governments are coming to power across the globe, as each national elite struggles to put itself first, at the expense of the rest of the planet. Right now, many of these nationalists combine climate change denial with their anti-immigrant rhetoric. But how long will it be until straightforward claims are put forward that, given increased resource competition caused by climate change, American lives (and this could be British lives, or Russian lives, or Chinese lives, depending where you are) are worth more than the lives of others, and that war must be waged, whatever the cost of lives in people from other countries, in order to preserve the well-being of the homeland, even at the cost of billions of lives elsewhere.
As bleak as things seem right now, it is not too late to pull the world back from the brink. The problem, however, is not mainly scientific. We know, basically, how to solve this problem. The problem is one of political willpower.
Fortunately, humanity has a rich history of fighting back against injustice, of fighting for radical change. This history is complicated, and the results have been mixed, especially when it comes to change on the sort of systemic level needed to truly avert the crisis we are now facing. And there have been a lot of pat summations and simplistic verdicts rendered regarding the complicated history of rebellions and revolutions.
The role of this podcast is to help change this situation. In this podcast, we will explore the history of the ideas that people have come up with regarding rebellion and revolution. I will give deep historical context, probably more than most people think they need, because the historical context within which ideas emerge is incredibly important in understanding those ideas in their own right and in evaluating their relevance for the sorts of changes humanity needs today.
It is my hope that this podcast helps people to understand the global history of people’s ideas about fighting for justice. I don’t aim to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of any particular ‘-ism.’ Rather, I want to help render the larger historical context and emergence of different ideas more comprehensible, and help to vaccinate listeners against many of the simplistic and harmful summations which circulate broadly, even among critical thinking people, and which narrow the horizons and lower the sights of people who really want nothing less than total liberation for all of humanity.
The main focus of this podcast for the near future will be on the history of the Chinese Revolution, going all the way back to its roots in the initial Chinese reactions to British imperialism during the Opium War of 1839-1842, and then following the development of the revolution and many of the ideas that were products of the revolution through to their transnational diffusion in the late 20th century. It’s a big topic.
Essentially, it’s the story of one country getting repeatedly beat down by all the major world powers: Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany and the United States, starting in the early 19th century and lasting all the way through World War Two. And during this time, people in China tried out a lot of different ideas about how to address their oppression, and a lot of what they tried didn’t work. Then, eventually, they did manage to kick all the imperialists out of China, only to find that the model for building socialism that they had didn’t work very well, and so they did a lot of experimenting and fighting among themselves about how to build an equitable and just society. I don’t think, from the vantage point of 2019, that you could say that they were particularly successful in creating the sort of society they were going for (except for the part about not being dominated by foreigners), but I do think that the long and complicated process, and the contending ideas that arose as part of that process, are extremely relevant to anyone interested in attempting the sort of deep social change which would be needed to address the crises the world is facing today.
There are several good reasons for starting with a focus on the Chinese Revolution, but they may not be readily apparent to most of our listeners, so I’d like to enumerate some of them:
First, the Chinese Revolution is the story of how China went from being subjugated and occupied by numerous foreign powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a situation which seemed hopeless to many people and where China seemed almost totally powerless, to kicking the foreign exploiters out of China. As an example of coming back from a seemingly hopeless situation to attain the seemingly impossible through the collective effort of millions of people, I don’t know of any better example in human history than the Chinese Revolution. And so I think there is, at the very least, some inspiration to be drawn there regarding our current crisis with the imminent collapse of human civilization due to the climate crisis and the complete unwillingness of the people currently running the world to take the action necessary for humanity’s survival.
Second, aside from serving as an inspiring example of collective endeavor for human betterment and vanquishing injustice, there are many ideas and strategies that were put forward during the Chinese Revolution that people will need to wrestle with today in thinking about how they can both find ways to effectively transform the world, and what sort of world we want when we do transform the world. While this is true of most major revolutions from the past couple centuries, the scope of the Chinese Revolution, and the sharpness with which opposing visions of both transformational strategy and aspirations for a new human society were articulated during the Chinese revolutionary process make it a particularly bountiful subject for study and examination.
Finally, as the competition between the United States and China seems to be developing in an overall trend of becoming sharper and sharper, there is a lot of value in people becoming more familiar with Chinese history. So much commentary on China in the United States, from both the right and the left, is based on a very shallow understanding of Chinese politics, culture and history, and a more informed understanding of China can only be a good thing.
So, that’s what this podcast is about. If this interests you, please subscribe and check out the episodes following this one. If it doesn’t interest you, cool, this isn’t for everyone.
Since we began the podcast with Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots,” let’s wrap up by going back to it for his take on the Chinese Revolution, from back in 1963:
“The Chinese Revolution — they wanted land. They threw the British out, along with the Uncle Tom Chinese. Yeah, they did. They set a good example. When I was in prison, I read an article — don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison. When I was in prison, I read an article in Life magazine showing a little Chinese girl, nine years old; her father was on his hands and knees and she was pulling the trigger ’cause he was an Uncle Tom Chinaman, When they had the revolution over there, they took a whole generation of Uncle Toms — just wiped them out. And within ten years that little girl become a full-grown woman. No more Toms in China. And today it’s one of the toughest, roughest, most feared countries on this earth — by the white man. ’Cause there are no Uncle Toms over there.”
Further down the line in this podcast, we’re going to go in depth into the international spread of the influence of the Chinese Revolution (and, just as an aside, I wrote a book on Maoism in Latin America called Transpacific Revolutionaries, which was published a few years ago by Routledge, so if you want a preview on the topic, go check that out).
Right now, I just want to point out what I think is most relevant from this clip of Malcolm X for this podcast.
This clip gives a sense of how
China was viewed back in the 1960s. It’s easy to lose sight of this today, when
China has become a large and repressive capitalist power, that back in the
1960s people like Malcolm X, the preeminent figure of Black revolutionary
nationalism in the United States, saw the experience of the Chinese Revolution
as something that people all over the world could learn from. It’s my hope that
by going back and revisiting that whole revolutionary process in this podcast, at
some length and in some detail, that listeners will be able to draw their own
conclusions about what can be learned from that historical experience.
In the next episode, we’ll start with getting into that history, beginning with the events leading up to the first Opium War in the early 19th century.