Revolution as Historic Necessity: Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China

That Red Star Over China (1937) has not made the same impact on revolutionary literature as John Reed’s 10 Days that Shook the World (1919) isn’t due to a lack of provenance; while Lenin personally recommended Reed’s account of the October Revolution to ‘the workers of the world’ in his introduction to the book, Red Star Over China sees far greater involvement by Mao himself. Rather than just remaining a revolutionary figure throughout the book, ratified after-the-fact, Mao sits down with Snow to recount his childhood, the conditions that necessitated the revolution, its tactics and how it must move forward against Japanese imperialism. But the revolution wasn’t yet successful. It didn’t involve an industrial working class identical to the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries; its experience was not one event in Petrograd that was “almost exactly duplicated” throughout the country, as Reed simplistically portrayed events in Russia. It was a movement of intense offensives, retreats, and fronts over thousands of miles of Chinese countryside.

There is less mythology around Snow than Reed. Insurgent Mexico, Reed’s first book, recounted his experience of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and was met with critical acclaim as it encapsulated the supposedly exotic flavour and spirit of the revolution. But this was at the expense of accuracy. Rather than an American with a penchant for the n-word as his companion as was the reality, we read about a fictional Mexican officer who tested Reed’s masculinity and threatened to shoot him before accepting him as a blood brother. His biographer, Robert A. Rosenstone, doubts whether Reed really “downed half a bottle of sotol while members of a guerrilla band cheered him on”.1Robert A. Rosenstone, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 150. By contrast, in Snow’s single volume, with prefaces and appendices from later decades including further conversations with Mao amid the development of the revolution, we find an inquisitiveness altogether more fruitful than Reed’s accounts – even if at times more naïve. When he entered Red territory for the first time, Snow admitted that he “did not know what ‘communism’ might mean to these men in practice”, as he prepared to have his scant belongings (bedding, two cameras, 24 rolls of film, and a little food) “requisitioned”.2Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism (London, UK: Grove Press, 2018), 59.

“Did they read Capital and the works of Lenin?”, he speculated. “Had they a thoroughly socialist program? Were they Stalinists or Trotskyites? Or neither? Was their movement really an organic part of the World Revolution? Were they true internationalists? ‘Mere tools of Moscow,’ or primarily nationalists struggling for an independent China?”.3Snow, 36. The Nationalist government of the Republic of China, the Kuomintang, had surrounded Red territory creating a blockade so that no information could reach the outside world. Even Snow himself was reported as having been killed by bandits.4Snow, 39.

On his way to the front, Snow found himself discussing the political situation in China with a young man on a train. Afraid that he wouldn’t be able to return home after seven years because of the threat of bandits, Snow asked “You mean Reds?” “Not Reds, although there are Reds in Szechuan, too. No, I mean bandits.” Curious, Snow asked whether these were one and the same, but the young man replied that the newspaper editors must call them bandits because they’re ordered to by the government; to call them communists or revolutionaries would be a sign of sympathy. “But in Szechuan don’t people fear the Reds as much as the bandits?”, Snow finally questioned. It depends, the young man answered.

The rich men fear them, and the landlords, and the tax collectors, yes. But the peasants do not fear them. Sometimes they welcome them. … My father wrote to me that they did abolish usury and opium in the Sungpan [Szechuan], and that they redistributed land there. So you see they are not exactly bandits. They have principles, all right. But they are wicked men. They kill too many people.

An old man who sat beside them, listening intently to the conversation, suddenly interrupted: “They don’t kill enough!”.5Snow, 42.

In the decade after 1927, the Kuomintang’s betrayal of both the Communist Party and the peasantry in its refusal to enact agrarian reform led to worsening poverty among the rural population, where “reports came in daily of catastrophes which in China were considered more or less routine.” Even as he was writing the book, Snow noted, “famine conditions continue to be reported in Honan, Anhui, Shensi, Kansu, Szechuan, and Kweichow.” Szechuan had been one of the provinces where taxes had been collected sixty years in advance, leaving thousands of acres of farmland abandoned as farmers were unable to pay rent or the exorbitant interest in loans, and Snow highlights a survey that reported “30,000,000 people are now in the famine belt of that province”, where its peasants had resorted to eating bark and balls of mud and straw to stave off hunger.

‘What is a communist?’

Once Snow was smuggled into Red territory, he found himself speaking to one young peasant who had joined the Red Army. He told Snow that when the communists came to his village they were welcomed; villagers brought them hot tea and made them sweets while the Red Army put on plays. “It was a happy time. Only the landlords ran.”6Repeatedly, Snow encounters these stories of landlords fleeing at the news of the Red Army’s imminent arrival. Ho Lung, an infamous leader of peasant rebellions who later joined the communists and was said to have established a Soviet district in Hunan in 1928 with just one knife, inspired so much fear in the landlords that reports of him being as far away as 60 miles would cause landlords to flee. But this was someone who had already joined the Red Army who described it as a happy time. And so, stopping in a village where children soon came to look at “the first foreign devil many of them had seen”, he decided to question them to see what they thought. “What is a communist?”, he asked them. The peasant children replied that a communist is someone who fights the White bandits of the Kuomintang and the Japanese imperialists. Another chimed in to say that they help to fight against landlords and capitalists. Prodding them again, Snow asked whether there were any landlords or capitalists in the village. “No!”, they all shrieked. “They’ve all run away!”7Snow, 85.

Any negative connotations surrounding the Red Army were lost on both the peasants and the soldiers. The latter were “perhaps the first consciously happy group of Chinese proletarians I had seen,” according to Snow. At times, he remarked, when he was with the Red Army he felt like he was among schoolboys who, rather than taking an interest in football or love, found themselves in a protracted guerrilla war. “I could scarcely believe that it had been only this determined aggregation of youth, equipped with an Idea, that had directed a mass struggle for ten years against all the armies of Nanking.” Speaking at the communists’ own university outside of Pao’an, the Red Army University, he soon exhausted his knowledge of current events in Europe and America amid the students’ questions. They asked: “why is it that, although the Communist Party is legal in both Great Britain and America, there is no workers’ government in either country?” “What progress is being made in the foundation of an anti-Fascist front in England? In America?” “What are the results of the NRA policy in America, and how has it benefited the working class?” “Why has the League of Nations failed?”8Snow, 116.

Conversations with Mao

It was here, in Pao’an, after riding through miles of Red territory on horseback – closely followed by White bandits before the Red Guard could rout them – that Snow finally met Mao. In a bare cave-dwelling with maps covering the walls, where their “chief luxury was a mosquito net”,9Snow, 93. Snow found Mao remarkably well read, not just on historical events and the ancient Greeks, as well as Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, and Rousseau, but also on contemporary events across the world.

Even on the Long March, it seems, the Reds received news broadcasts by radio, and in the Northwest they published their own newspapers. Mao was exceptionally well read in world history and had a realistic conception of European and social and political conditions. He was very interested in the Labour Party of England, and questioned me intensely about its present policies, soon exhausting all my information. It seemed to me that he found it difficult fully to understand why, in a country where workers were enfranchised, there was still no workers’ government. I was afraid my answer did not satisfy him. He expressed profound contempt for Ramsay MacDonald, whom he designated as a han-chien – an archtraitor of the British people.10Snow, 94.

Snow noted that these interviews with Mao came to over 20,000 words.11Snow, 90. They covered his childhood and how his parents came to be rich peasants, his early schooling and work, his political inspirations and development – even a brief anarchist period where he would discuss with a friend “its possibilities in China” – through the creation of the New People’s Study Society, the formation of the Communist Party and its alliance and antagonisms with the Kuomintang. Throughout these interviews Mao slowly fades into the background as politics overtakes him, removing himself from the narrative as he recalls the setbacks faced by the Communist Party in 1927 and after. Snow repeatedly encouraged Mao to discuss his role in these events in vain. Surprised that anyone would be interested in his personal life, Mao only agreed to give the interviews under the pretence of correcting reports that portrayed him as a fanatic. When Mao finally recounted his life, however, Snow soon realised “that this was not only his story but an explanation of how communism grew – a variety of it real and indigenous to China – and why it had won adherence and support of thousands of young men and women.”12Snow, 125.

The communist movement had made significant gains in China before it was outlawed in 1927, after which it immediately rebuilt itself and began to establish Soviets and enact land reform. It then faced waves of attacks that culminated in the Fifth Campaign in 1934 – initiating the Long March – where the Kuomintang boasted that 1,000,000 people had been killed or starved to death as whole areas were depopulated by forced migrations and mass executions.13Snow, 188. It was a period of violent counterrevolution not just in China but globally. The ‘Permanent Revolution’ in imperialist Europe had failed to come to fruition, the League of Nations had failed to halt Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and Mussolini’s conquest of the Horn of Africa, and the imperialist powers had refused to create an anti-fascist front with the USSR. Peasants and soldiers were keenly aware of what the failure of the revolution meant – the re-establishment of landlords, execution for communist sympathies, and a return to the cultivation of poppy that would lead to famine. The words that greeted Snow in a small village as he entered Red territory presented their demands:

‘Down with the landlords who eat our flesh!’

‘Down with the militarists who drink our blood!’

‘Down with the traitors who sell China to Japan!’

‘Welcome the United Front with all anti-Japanese armies!’

‘Long live the Chinese Red Army!’14Snow, 64.

Snow After China

Like Reed, Snow faced censorship and repression both in America and abroad. Travelling through India, a secret service agent questioned him on a train to Calcutta about his alleged connection to the Comintern and, despite any assurances, this charge would surface again and again as Snow faced the threat of deportation. In America, the CIA produced and distributed publications specifically to counter the “sympathetic view of the emerging China as presented by Edgar Snow”15‘For example, CIA records for 1967 state that certain books about China subsidized or even produced by the Agency “circulate principally in the U.S. as a prelude to later distribution abroad.” Several of these books on China were widely reviewed in the United States, often in juxtaposition to the sympathetic view of the emerging China as presented by Edgar Snow’. Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book 1: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 198. and the FBI’s files on him ran to 555 pages as they attempted to determine his political beliefs and the extent of his support for Mao and the Communist Party of China. These files on Snow were regularly passed to McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities in spite of his own protestations that it was “a lie to state or infer in any way that I am or have ever been a communist.”

Snow also refused to make friends with communists in America. Following on from Mao’s criticism of the Comintern, which insisted that the Party focus its efforts on the urban centres, Snow’s work drew a scathing review from the Communist Party of America. In The Communist, the party’s magazine of theory and practice, the book was dismissed as gossip and slander that led readers into the “quicksands of Trotskyism” for its criticism of the Comintern; yet Snow’s stance was not borne out of any allegiance to Trotsky, but rather to the Chinese communists and to their struggle.

Snow had covered events on the ground in China some time before meeting Mao and entering Red territory. He interviewed the newly appointed Chinese governor of Manchukuo – occupied Manchuria – who protested that he had been put into that position against his will and hadn’t even approved a budget because it was not translated into Chinese; reported the Japanese military’s practice of herding Chinese peasants into bamboo thickets before setting it on fire and shooting if they came running out; and witnessed the first Japanese air raid on civilians, where he crawled over bomb craters to see whether the Kuomintang military had abandoned their posts.

When you [have] been here as long as I have you would begin to see that this revolution is merely an expression of a historic need of the masses, too long suppressed, too long denied, and now become volcanic and catastrophic in its manifestation. It is the people’s thumbs down on the rulers of the realm.16John Maxwell Hamilton, Edgar Snow: A Biography (USA: Indiana University Press, 1988), 63.

Snow’s Legacy in China (and Beyond)

After Snow’s death in 1972, he was memorialised in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. It was the first such tribute to a foreigner there, and half of Snow’s ashes were buried in Peking University with an inscription in English and Mandarin that reads, “an American friend of the Chinese people.” Red Star Over China and Snow’s journalism left an enduring reputation around the world17In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalled “In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that led him to victory.” and in China, where the book became a primary source on the revolution when it was at its lowest ebb. And as China continues its successful “New Long March” against poverty, Cao Wenxuan, a professor at Peking University, remarked that it is “to Snow’s credit that we see how the revolution grew from the start”.

The book’s importance extends beyond this, however. While it does present a detailed picture of the Red Army recovering from its lowest point, it doesn’t just contribute to the canon of revolutionary literature through recalling the strategy of the Communist Party of China; more fundamentally, it reiterates the necessity of communist revolution itself. It brings to mind Che Guevara’s letter to Carlos Quijano, where he wrote that the revolution is not about ‘how many times a year someone can go to the beach’, as contemporary proponents of Fully Automated Luxury Communism might well frame it, or ‘how many pretty things from abroad you might be able to buy with present-day wages.’18Che Guevara, ‘Socialism and Man’ in Che Guevara Speaks (UK: Pathfinder, 2016), 169. It is about liberation. Che remarks that at first it was those who fought in the Sierra Maestra who knew sacrifice, but soon everyone in Cuba came to know it, as increasing pressure mounted against its revolution and it fought off attacks and persevered under the US blockade. So too, in China, did the Communist Party, the Red Army and the peasantry know sacrifice – along with the communists in the Global South who have fought these same battles.

The question of moralism and suffering are endemic to discussions of communism in imperialist countries, as many on the left insist that any material sacrifice is at best superfluous and at worst disingenuous and cynical. This trend culminates in Mark Fisher’s caricature of a ‘harsh Leninist Superego’ which condemns everything that exists in the hope that one day they will be proven right and attain salvation draped in a red flag.19Mark Fisher, ‘Acid Communism’, Blackout ( There is a presupposition that capitalism in the imperial core has reached such a stage that, in spite of increasing casualisation, the working class will never know true struggle or even difficulty – that being without the most trivial consumer product is as alien to them as hunger. To introduce the question of struggle or sacrifice into this dialogue is seen as a futile attempt to pry them away from their consumer products and lecture them;20Mark Fisher, ‘Acid Communism’, Blackout ( the only way to achieve revolution, so the argument goes, is to compete with capitalism and its culture industry to co-opt this desire for consumer products for positive ends.

Edgar Snow’s book reminds us that, regardless of the working-class in the imperial core, this sacrifice has already been made. Regardless of whether they were able to complete a successful revolution, whether they were able to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat and defend those gains, countless communists around the world have already made this sacrifice – not out of feted moralism, but of necessity.

Lewis Hodder is an Editor at Ebb Magazine, whose writing engages with topics ranging from the Frankfurt School to British communist parties. He studied English at Falmouth University before going on to drop out of KU Leuven while studying philosophy.

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Edgar Snow