Britain and the Origins of the Industrial Revolution – Part 1.

The Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the human life in the history of the world recorded in human documents. Eric Hobsbawm

The mid-18th century to the first decade of the 20th century brought fundamental changes in people’s lives and thoughts.  During this time, Western Europe changed from a mainly agricultural region to an industrial one. These changes began in Britain and then spread to Western Europe and the U.S.  Russia, East Europe, and the Balkans came later.  The Industrial Revolution, as this period is called, is considered by many historians to be the most significant development in human history.  It involved, among other things, the creation of new technologies and economic systems as populations shifted from farms and villages to cities. Political systems, economic exchange, social relations, and warfare underwent drastic transformations.  New words like factory, railroad, middle class, capitalism, science, and engineers shaped how people saw themselves and their world (Winks 65).  How did this revolution begin, and how did it fundamentally change human life?  Why did it begin in Western Europe and, more particularly, Britain? 

In this 7-part series of blogs, we will examine the following:

Part 1: Introduction: Defining the Industrial Revolution

Part 2: Population Growth and Improved Food Production

Part 3: Access to Foreign Markets and Capital Investment

Part 4: A (Pre-mechanized Factory) Domestic Manufacturing Economy

Part 5: Technology, the Mechanization of Production and Alternative Sources of Energy (e.g. coal)

Part 6: Land and Water Transport

Part 7: The Textile Industry. 

Defining the “Industrial Revolution”

Scholars continue to debate various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Even the chronology poses fundamental challenges.  Historian Lindeman writes that the Industrial Revolution offers “no easily identifiable beginning and no discernible end. (Lindeman, 44). Some scholars identify the beginning as the mid-eighteenth century.  Others, like R.C. Allen, go back to the 16th century. 

Considering the topic’s complexity, we need to define our terms.  “Industry” refers to the large-scale processing of raw materials and manufacturing goods in factories. “Revolution” is more problematic as it offers multiple meanings.  In one sense, revolution can be sudden, radical or change.  Historical examples include the French and American Revolutions that fomented sudden political and social change. However, “revolution” also refers to fundamental change. This might be political and socioeconomic change or ways of thinking, such as the Copernican revolution that revealed the Sun (rather than Earth) as the center of the universe or Darwin’s work on evolution.  Such events virtually pervade all aspects of human life, altering how we think and interact with the world.  This certainly applies to the Industrial Revolution.    

Although timelines are still debated, historians agree that the revolution was not sudden but occurred over a long period (150 years or longer), so they focus more on “revolution” as a fundamental change over time.  Donald Kagan writes that the Industrial Revolution “was revolutionary less in its speed, which was on the whole rate slow, than its implications for future of European society.” (Kagan 497) R.C. Allen writes that the Industrial Revolution “is no longer the abrupt discontinuity that its name suggests, for it was the result of an economic expansion that started in the sixteenth century.” (2). Accordingly, some scholars refer to an Industrial Evolution.

Of course, this extended period saw a profound change. The Industrial Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm points out, “was not merely an acceleration of economic growth, but an acceleration of growth because of, and through, economic and social transformation.” (13). The operative word here is transformation.   

What changed?

So, what was this “transformation” or “fundamental change?  One answer is that the Industrial Revolution altered a world ultimately dependent on the earth’s resources and organic means of production – dependencies that limited growth. Food production, for instance, involved people and animals toiling in fields, their productivity limited by land availability and technological limits.  Watermills used water flow but required proximity to a river.  Wind-propelled ships and windmills depended on the wind.  People burned wood to cook, heat homes, and metallurgy this but required access to trees – a rapidly dwindling European resource.  At the beginning of the 1700s, more than 90 percent of the European population lived in rural settings and engaged directly in animal husbandry and agricultural activities.” (MIII, 301) Few urban dwellers worked in factories. 

All of this would change – albeit gradually and in the beginning, only in particular parts of the world. Over time the focus on organic labour and agriculture shifted to alternative sources of energy -especially coal – and the factory-based and mechanized production of goods. (MIII,296) To better understand how this transformation happened, we must explore the preconditions that facilitated these changes. It all began in Britain.

So, this series of blogs will focus on the factors that led to Britain’s gradual transformation into the world’s first industrial nation.

Our next blog: Part 2 Population Growth and Improved Food Production


Allen, Robert. 1994. “Agriculture During the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850.” In Roderick Floud and Donald N. McCloskey, eds., The Economic History of Britain Since 1700. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Vol. I. Ashton,

Allen, R. C. (1999). Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England. The Economic History Review, 52(2), 209–235.

Allen, R. C. “Why the Industrial Revolution Was British: Commerce, Induced Invention, and the Scientific Revolution.” The Economic History Review 64, no. 2 2011: 357–84.

Cardwell, D.S.L. 1994. The Fontana History of Technology. London: Fontana. Crafts,

Cipolla, Carol M. The Fontana Economic History of Europe: Vol. 3, The Industrial Revolution. London: 1973.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. New York: The New Press, 1999.

Kagan, Donald.   The Western Heritage. Toronto: Pearson Education LTD., 2007.

Komlos, John. “Nutrition, Population Growth, and the Industrial Revolution in England.” Social Science History 14, no. 1 1990: 69–91.

Landis, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich, and Some are so Poor. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Biological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century. Lanham, Maryland: Bowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

McCloskey, D. N. 198-. “The Industrial Revolution in Britain 1780- 1860: A Survey,” in Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey, The Economic History of Britain since 1700.

Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the French Revolution to the Present. Volume Two. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. 

O’Brien, P. K. “Agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.” The Economic History Review 30, no. 1 1977: 166–81.

Osbourne, Roger. Iron, Steam, and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution. London: Random House, 2013.

Pelz, William A. “Becoming an Appendage to the Machine: The Revolution in Production.” In A People’s History of Modern Europe, 52–63. Pluto Press, 2016.

Schellekens, Jona. “Nuptiality during the First Industrial Revolution in England: Explanations.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27, no. 4 1997: 637–54.

Vries, Peer. (2008). The Industrial Revolution. Pdf file downloaded

Winks, Robin and Joan Neuberger. Europe and the Making of Modernity, 1815-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Russia 1905: A Dress Rehearsal for 1917 

 The beginning of the twentieth century forever changed the course of Russian history. Two revolutions occurred in Russia in 1917 – the February and October Revolutions.   The February Revolution toppled Tsar Nicholas II’s Russian monarchy and created a liberal-socialist Provisional government.  In October, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power and ushered in decades of communist rule in what became the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1989.  These events evolved from longstanding developments, including Russia’s revolution of 1905, which saw an unprecedented challenge to Tsarist authority that almost toppled the government.  It was the first time in Russia that the Tsarist government faced a revolt from virtually all levels of society, including the liberals middle class, the workers, and the peasantry. These revolts revealed a groundswell of discontent that grew out of drastic social changes, economic inequalities, and a Tsar determined to retain absolutism in the face of widespread calls for reform. Nicholas II quashed the rebellions and retained power, but these events laid the groundwork for 1917. As Lenin mused in 1920, 1905 was a dress rehearsal for 1917.  =

Tsar Nicholas II and Autocratic Rule in Russia. Tsars had ruled Russia since the 15th century and were considered divine right monarchs with unlimited power. Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1894 after his father, Alexanders II, passed.  Only 26, Nicholas II lacked his father’s vision, experience and fortitude.  Yet, the new Tsar believed he was entitled to rule as he wished and that his subjects were loyal to him even during widespread protest and dissent.  He preferred to blame dissension on “foreign elements,” particularly Jews, rather than address the underlying causes, such as poverty and poor working conditions. Like his father, Nicholas used his secret police and armed forces to suppress revolts.  However, this approach could not last as seismic social changes, encouraged by rapid economic growth, would increasingly challenge Tsarist rule. 

Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last Tsar from 1894-1917

Russia Industrializes. From the outside, Russia appeared to be an unstoppable power.  It possessed the world’s largest state territory, extending from Germany to China and Japan, and Europe’s largest population and army.  Russia also seemed set economically with abundant natural resources such as minerals and foodstuffs.  Culturally, Russia boasted the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Tchaikovsky as leaders in their respective arts. However, in many ways, Russia lagged behind European powers like England and France. The Crimean War (1854-56), which saw Russia lose to English and French expeditionary forces with superior navies and better weapons, highlighted Russia’s “backwardness.”

The loss inspired Russia to focus on industrialization.  Infused with foreign capital, Russia experienced large-scale industry growth as shops and largescale factories created products like textiles, printed materials and metalworks. By 1900, Russia had become the fourth largest steel producer and “turned out half of the world’s oil.” (Duiker, 15) Towns and cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg grew as they attracted people from the countryside seeking factory work.   Economic growth also required dependable transport. In the 1870s, Russia began developing an extensive rail network that facilitated the development of Russia’s mineral sector and the export of its grains to Western markets.  The vast Trans-Siberian railway linked Moscow to potential markets of the Far East – China, Manchuria, Korea and Japan.

Rapid Changes to Russian Society. Russia’s investment in industrialization and education fostered dramatic social changes destabilizing the regime. Industrialization led to increasing urbanization as more people moved to urban centres for work and school.  This urban migration altered class demographics, bolstering the numbers of industrial workers, commercial and industrial capitalists and the professional middle classes, including doctors, lawyers, and merchants.  State-sponsored basic education facilitated a rapid rise in literacy as universities arose in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Historian Orlando Figes writes that “Between 1860 and 1914, the number of university students in Russia grew from 5000 to 69000.”(Figes, PT, 163)

Russia also experienced significant rural changes.  Serfdom ended in 1861, liberating serfs from the authority of manor lords from the noble class, but it did not drastically improve their plight. The new peasant class still laboured the land and now paid rent to the aristocracy through labour or money. Some still faced hunger and poverty with unpredictable growing seasons and minimal resources to manage agricultural setbacks. However, some peasants fared well “either by improving the agricultural productivity or by diversifying into non-agricultural activities.” (Hoskings, 358) The nobility retained a high status, occupying the highest posts in the military and government administrations and still owned vast lands. However, the end of serfdom eroded noble privilege.  Moreover, the new urban classes that benefitted from industrialization and urbanization eroded the nobility’s status.

Russian peasants in a rural village circa 1900

The Limits of Tsardom. Events such as the Famine Crisis of 1891 highlighted the limits of Tsarist authority and a need for a less centralized political structure. The 1891 famine, made worse by cholera and typhus, killed half a million people by the end of 1892. (PT, Figes, 159)The Russian government could not provide adequate relief and needed to solicit help from private groups to facilitate relief efforts. District councils known as Zemstvos orchestrated the distribution of food and medicine.  Such demonstrations of Tsarist limitations and social change fed calls for political reform. For his part, Nicholas II dismissed these demands as stemming from foreigners, revolutionaries and Jews who needed to be vigorously repressed.

Widespread Discontent. However, the problems lay far beyond the Tsar’s short-sighted explanations. Industrial growth benefited some more than others. In the cities, the growing working class resented the obvious income disparities. As historian Margaret MacMillan writes, “The magnates in Moscow and St. Petersburg lived in magnificent mansions and assembled great collections of art and furniture while the workers lived in squalor and laboured long hours in appalling conditions.” (176) Workers also had few legal protections that offered job security or promoted physical safety. Unions were illegal until 1905, so there were few options to express their grievances as unions. With limited options, it is unsurprising that labour discontent was “widespread in Russia’s industrial center for at least the preceding two decades” before 1905 (Snow, 7).

Russian workers in a textile factory.

Workplace culture was also evolving. As historian Neil Faulkner points out,  workplaces bred “the more determined of the proletarian militants into a political revolution, creating a new kind of Russian intelligentsia, one formed of self-taught intellectuals.” (49).  Since the Tsarist government tended to side with the industrialists against workers, the latter saw autocracy as a barrier to a better life. 

Tensions also grew in the countryside. Peasants were officially emancipated in 1861, but their situations remained generally dire. Emancipation still favoured the landlord. Nobility, gentry, and prosperous farmers retained two-thirds of the land, including most pastures and woodland.” (38). Peasants could not sell the land allotted to them, raise money by mortgaging it or renounce their entitlement. Consequently, they had to pay a kind of tax for many years to claim the property they might not have wanted. (Boyd 48) To make matters worse, the landed nobility often raised land rent beyond affordability, so many peasants fell into arrears and worked extra to compensate.  The more desperate committed petty crimes and looted prosperous landowners. Famines in 1892, 1898, and 1901 worsened their plight and led to peasant uprisings or jacqueries.

Meanwhile, a growing middle class in the cities intensified their demands for a greater political voice.  There were no political parties or parliament to address their concerns or aspirations.  The Tsar had created district councils or zemstvos to administer his agenda, but they did not impact national policies.  The zemstvos’ active role in famine relief and the Tsarist regime’s inadequacies encouraged them to seek constitutional reform, including limits to Tsarist authority.  Not surprisingly, Nicholas II would saw many zemstvos as potential havens of insurrection and “subjected them to a relentless campaign of persecution.” (PT, 164) 

 A growing number of students actively protested against Tsarist rule and policies. Urbanization and increasing literacy created a growing student population acquainted with the anti-autocratic ideas of western thinkers such as John Locke and Karl Marx, and Russia saw an upsurge in radicalism in the universities of St. Petersberg, Moscow, Warsaw and Kyiv.  Nicholas further antagonized students when he passed a decree in July 1899 that lifted military deferments for students guilty of political misconduct.  Predictably, as McMeekin writes, “many students who protested the decree were impressed into the army.” (McMeekin, 20)  In July 1904, Plehve, the Minister of the Interior, was “blown to pieces by a bomb planted by the SR Combat organization. 

Social Revolutionaries. Some Russians didn’t believe reforms went far enough and called for a revolution to create their vision of a better society.  These included the Social Revolutionary Party, which focused on supporting the peasants – 80% of Russia’s population as the revolution engine. Social Democrats, on the other hand, focused on the urban working class or proletariat.  By 1903 the Social Democrats would splinter/divide into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. These groups played a more critical role in events leading to 1917 but did contribute to unrest in 1905.

The Russo-Japanese War 1903-1905.

Russia’s domestic problems were exacerbated by its foreign policy, particularly its efforts to expand into the Fat East.  Since 1860, when Tsar Alexander II founded a military base on the Pacific coast and dubbed it Vladivostok – meaning Lord of the East – Japan feared Russian encroachment and watched the construction of a Trans-Siberian mainland that couldtransport European arms on its borders (Boyd, 41).  Japan expressed its concerns to Russia, whose leaders saw the Japanese as an inferior non-European power impeding Russian growth and progress.

Japan decided to act. On February 8, Japan launched a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. This pre-emptive attack occurred before Russia could send reinforcements for its Far Eastern forces. A series of defeats on land and sea would follow Russia’s initial setback.”(32 Fitzpatrick)   The Japanese forces proved more formidable, and Russia could not overcome the numerous logistical problems of fighting a war 6000 miles away. 

The defeat was humiliating and far-reaching.  Russia approached the peace table as the first European power to lose to an Asian foe in the imperialist era.  The war undermined Tsarist prestige and faith that Nicholas II could steer Russia in the right direction feeding the growing political unrest from all directions – students, workers, peasants, liberals and social revolutionaries.   An event in the first month of 1905 would spark widespread unrest and threaten to topple in Tsarist government.    

Bloody Sunday On Sunday, January 9, 1905, a crowd of almost 250,000 – workers and their families – approached the Tsar’s White Palace in St. Petersburg, intent on presenting Nicholas with a petition calling for political and economic reforms, including an eight-hour work day, the right to strike, civil liberties and a constituent assembly.   Unbeknownst to the protesters, the Tsar had already left the city.  As the unarmed peaceful protesters approached, Tsarist security forces panicked and fired on the crowd. More than a hundred protesters were killed or wounded in what became known as Bloody Sunday. 

Tsarist soldiers face protesters in front of the White Palace

The event triggered seismic outrage and sparked the 1905 revolution.  As William Duiker writes, it was a cataclysmic eruption of social disorder. (Duiker, 13).  Indeed, the event intensified dissent across Russia as “Wave upon wave of protest strikes rolled over the land….” (Lindemann, 159). Within a week, industrial workers across Russia were on strike. Revolutionary councils (soviets) sprang up in urban centers to help organize strikes that continued into the summer and the fall. Print workers protested in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Railroad workers went on strike a month later, paralyzing rail travel.  By the end of October, strikes had brought St. Petersburg “to its knees.” (Boyd, 58)  Revolts spread to the countryside with the 1905 Spring thaw peasants rose, refusing to pay rent, looting, seizing and burning estates.

However, these protests were generally disorganized. Tsarist forces readily quashed peasant uprisings village by village.  In the cities, they infiltrated and arrested organizers of worker strikes and student revolts.  As McMeekin writes, “So long as the army remained loyal, revolutionary schemes to topple the tsar remained little more than fanciful wish dreams.” (McMeekin 28)

Nonetheless, Russia’s government officials feared ongoing discontent that could eventually topple the regime and encouraged Nicholas II to make reforms. The Tsar resisted but finally conceded. Secretary of the Interior Witte publicly committed to drafting a proposal for a State Duma (Parliament), universal male suffrage, and fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and association, to present to the Tsar for consideration.

The October Manifesto.  Nicholas agreed to what became known as the October Manifesto. The Manifesto legalized unions and political parties and established a nationally elected Parliament, the Duma. The Manifesto offered no solution to worker grievances, such as the eight-hour workday, respectful treatment by the employer, and better pay and conditions. (Figes, 33)  It would not be until the Tsar’s decrees of March 4, 1906, led to the legalization of strikes and worker’s unions.  For the peasantry, Tsar eased the peasantry’s redemption payments.

 Despite its limitations, the Manifesto was initially well received, with people celebrating the proclamation in the streets.” (Figes, 32)  However, this euphoria would be short-lived.  Tsarist actions would soon dispel hopes that Russia was en route to becoming a constitutional monarchy.  Nicholas II agreed to sign the Manifesto to appease a growing revolt rather than any conviction that he should share political power. Moreover, the defeat of the revolution proved to him that the Russian monarchy could triumph over adversity, that it was destined to lead Russia out of a time of trouble… (Wortman, 216)

Convinced of his righteousness and perceived need to weed out bad Russia’s harmful elements, Nicholas II resumed his suppression of those involved in the uprisings.  In December 1905, Nicholas II ordered the leaders of the St. Petersburg soviets arrested and put on trial for armed rebellion.” (Lindemann, 159). By 1906, the Tsar had curtailed the power of the Duma and fell back on the army and bureaucracy to rule Russians.” (Duiker, 15)

Conclusion. The 1905 Russian Revolution presented Russia’s Tsardom with a historically unprecedented challenge to its authority.  Members of all classes – workers, middle-class liberals, students, and peasants – protested Russia’s political system.  To stave off his usurpation, Nicholas II agreed to sign the October Manifesto that established Russia’s first Duma (Parliament) and offered long-demanded concessions, including the right to strike, legalizing unions, etc. Tsar also retained power because he retained the loyalty of the Russian Army and state police that could repress uprisings in the city and countryside.  

While the Tsar survived 1905, it was on borrowed time.  Widespread discontent would not wane as various classes continued to struggle. Nicholas II’s unwillingness to make meaningful reforms that would include more Russians in the political process lent credibility to the social revolutionaries who insisted that revolution was the answer.  With the added strains of the Frist World War (1914-1918), Russia toppled the Tsarist regime and embarked on a new path that would change the course of Russian and global history.     


Ascher, Abraham. The Russian Revolution: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.

Faulkner, Neil. “The Revolutionaries.” A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, 2017, pp. 27–51. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Jan. 2023.

Boyd, Douglas. Red October: The Revolution that Changed the World. Glouchester, The History Press, 2017.

Duiker, William J.  Twentieth-Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2007.

Figues, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008

Hoskings, Geoffrey. Russia and Russians: A History. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011

Hutchinson, John F. “Sovereignty as a Constitutional Issue in Imperial Russia, 1905-1915.” T. University of British Columbia, 1963.

Lindeman, Albert S. A History of Modern Europe From 1815 to the Present. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 

Lindert, Peter H., and Steven Nafziger. “Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 74, no. 3, 2014, pp. 767–98. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Jan. 2023.

MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2013

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From 1966 to 1976, Communist leader Mao Zedong led a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that renewed the Chinese Revolution that Mao felt had lost its way. Mao and his followers drastically altered the country’s political, economic, and social structure.   Historian Paul Clark calls it “the biggest non-wartime, concentrated social upheaval in world history. (1). Rhoads Murphey and Kirsten Stapleton describe it as “perhaps the great cataclysm in world history, measured by the hundreds of millions of people in mass persecution and suffering. (377).

During this period, Mao used strong imagery to promote himself as the “father” of the people and China as the world’s communist leader. By 1976, and after Mao’s death, moderates like Deng began to guide the country down a different path that invited economic incentives, western technology, education, and industrialization.

The Great Leap Forward and Soviet “revisionism.” A series of events leading to 1966 undermined Mao’s position in the Chinese Communist Party. First, his “Great Leap Forward” (beginning in 1958) was a disaster. Proclaiming that China would exceed British industrial production, Mao abolished private ownership and established communes throughout China to focus on manufacturing and bring industrialization to China’s rural areas. These peoples’ communes lacked organization and adequate equipment, expertise, and resources to succeed. Peasant resistance, administrative problems and bad weather also lead to unproductive food production. As many as 30 million starved or died from malnutrition in what Murphy and Stapleton describe as the “worst famine in world history.” (376). The program undermined Mao’s credibility and opened more opportunities to the moderate elements of the Communist Party, such as Lin Shaoquoi, who wanted to invite foreign technology and reinstate profit incentives.

Foreign developments also undermined Mao’s status. Mao had “portrayed Soviet policy-makers as ‘capitalist roaders’ and as betrayers of Marxism for seeking to cooperate with the West. (Rossabi, 386) The subsequent break with Moscow led to increasing political isolation and the withdrawal of much-needed Soviet technical support and economic assistance. In short, Mao’s zealous ideology furthered China’s isolation.   

Mao “revives” the revolution. Mao Zedong lost his position as head of state but somehow remained the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist party. He wanted to renew a revolution he felt had lost its vision and integrity. He insisted that China would fall into the complacency and Westernization he believed was happening in the Soviet Union without drastic changes. The Chinese revolution needed a revival.

Persecution. Supported by ideologically driven Party members and youth movements, Mao set about to “cleanse” Chinese society by targeting those deemed enemies of the campaign. The list of enemies proved long, but Mao and his supporters began with moderate party members like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). A Red Guard Student Brigade ridiculed and abused Mao’s political rivals such as Liu Shou (killed), Deng Xiaoping (imprisoned), and Zhou Enlai (driven to seclusion).  

Mao closed China’s schools and universities, labelling them as breeding grounds for rightist dissenters. Intellectuals, including writers, educators, and academics who criticized Party policies, were removed or detained, sentenced to forced manual labour or killed. Persecutors identified these targets as “rightists,” “enemies of the revolution,” or people of “bourgeoisie” inclination. In 1968, Zhou Enlai finally convinced Mao to bring in the army to suppress the Red Guards, many of whom felt betrayed by Mao, who had encouraged their radical actions. 

Mao’s Economic Revolution. Mao and his supporters altered the economy to reflect their ideological goals. They criticized Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiangping’s welcoming of foreign technology to grow the economy. Mao preferred to depend on labour rather than machinery and favoured the competence and dedication of the proletariat over capital investment in technology. In other words, China would achieve progress and prosperity through domestic efforts without foreign inspiration or assistance. Like the Great Leap Forward, rural communes produced mediocre and low-quality items such as iron, steel, and agricultural goods.  Once again, the economy faltered.

The Moderates Regain Power. By the 1970s, the revolution lost momentum, mainly under the weight of its extremism and archaic economic policies. The violence of the Red Guard and other groups had gone further than even Mao saw fit. People coveted stability. Not surprisingly, Mao’s economic policies did not revive the economy, and China seemed again immersed in a weakening economy inspired by ideology rather than practical guidance. 

The Cultural Revolution received its final blow when Mao died on September 9, 1976. Again, the moderates moved to consolidate control. One of the first steps was to purge the Gang of Four from the Party and sentence them to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping would lead the moderates to shift China away from Mao’s ideologically driven plan to a more pragmatic approach that blended modernization and capitalist ingenuity into the Party’s communist agenda.

In future blogs, we will take a closer look at various elements of the Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Leap Forward. As always, feel welcome to contact us with ideas about future blog topics you would like to see.


Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dikoter, Frank. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

MacFaquahar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals.  Mao’s Last Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Murphey, Rhoads and Kristen Stapleton. A History of Asia. Eighth Edition, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rossabi, Morris. A History of China. West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.

What was the “Agricultural Revolution”? 

Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions.  Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century.  Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution.  How many cited the Agricultural Revolution?  Likely not many.  Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history.  Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…”  (Wright, 45)

So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen?  How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials.  “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals.  This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived.  Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals.  Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.   

When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE.  Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world.  Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives.  China cultivated rice

There are two points to remember.  One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years.   Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas. 

Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings.  Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area.  Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.”  Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move.   Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.    

Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth.  Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area.  As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58).  A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy.   These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires.  A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life. 

What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question.  After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering.  Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction.  Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas.  Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population.  Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.     

Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact.  Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress.  Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change.  Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history. 

Select Bibliography.

Havari, Yural Noah.  Sapiens.  A Brief History of Humankind.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014. 

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.

Stearns, Peter et al.  World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition.  New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg, ed.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.

Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.