In this episode we continue our examination of Mao Zedong’s ideological development by discussing his anarchist period.
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 1: The Pre-Marxist Period, 1912-1920 is the indispensable source here.
Some names from this episode:
Li Dazhao, leading proponent of learning from the Russian Revolution
Hu Shi, student of John Dewey and advocate for pragmatism
Chen Duxiu, editor of New Youth and leading New Culture intellectual
Welcome to Episode 14 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we will be picking up the story of Mao Zedong during his pre-Marxist years.
We last left off with Mao in episode 12 by looking at the first of his written works which has survived down to today, a school essay that he wrote in 1912, when he was 18 years old. He was just out of his short and uneventful time in the revolutionary army of 1911, and he was going to school and intended to use his education to find a way to further China’s progress, but was far from the Marxist revolutionary that he would later become. In fact, the way that we characterized his thinking in 1912 was that he had the perspective of supporting good rulers of a traditional type, and he showed this in his essay by his support for the policies of one of the founders of the Legalist school of statecraft from ancient China, Shang Yang.
So, let’s look at how Mao developed during the years between writing that essay, which we read and discussed in episode 12, and the May 4th Movement of 1919.
Mao spent most of this time at the Hunan Normal School (normal schools are teacher’s colleges, by the way, since I know many listeners will not be familiar with that term, which is now becoming antiquated). He graduated in June 1918. So, for most of this time, Mao was a student, although he did participate in some other extracurricular activities during this time, such as helping to start a night school for regular working people. And in 1917 he drew together other activist-minded Hunanese youth into the New People’s Study Society, which was a loose association for talking about progressive ideas, and was similar to a lot of other loose-knit groupings which came together around the New Culture Movement across China at the time.
The big intellectual transition that Mao made during these years as a student was away from supporting traditional Chinese political thinkers, such as the Legalists, to a form of individualism and self-cultivation that was heavily influenced by reading foreign writers, mainly in the European liberal tradition.
Mao’s first published article, “A Study of Physical Education,” was published in the New Culture Movement flagship journal, New Youth, in April 1917. This article was very much in line with the New Culture Movement avoidance of overtly, or narrowly, political topics in favor of discussing culture and education. To give you a sense of what Mao was doing in this article, I’ll read you the first paragraph:
“Our nation is wanting in strength; the military spirit has not been encouraged. The physical condition of our people deteriorates daily. These are extremely disturbing phenomena. Those who promote [physical education] have not grasped the essence of the problem. Consequently their efforts, though prolonged, have proved ineffectual. If they refuse to change, the process of weakening will be aggravated. To attain our goals and exercise far-reaching influence is an external matter, an effect. The development of our bodily strength is an internal matter, a cause. If our bodies are not strong, we will tremble at the sight of [enemy] soldiers. How then can we attain our goals, or exercise far-reaching influence? Strength comes from drill, and drill depends on self-awareness. The [promoters of physical education] have not failed to develop many methods. The reason why they are ineffectual is that external forces are insufficient to move the heart. They do not understand the real meaning of physical education, its true value, its effects, or where one should start. In all of these aspects, they are ignorant and lost in a thick fog. Naturally they are ineffectual. If we want physical education to be effective, we must influence people’s subjective attitudes and stimulate their awareness of physical education. If one has self-awareness, a program of physical education will follow without further discussion; similarly, we will attain our goals and exert far-reaching influence as a matter of course. I am deeply concerned about the importance of physical education, and I regret that those who promote it fail to achieve the results that they should. I know there must be many comrades in our country who suffer from this as I do. I venture to offer my foolish opinions for debate. What I say here has not all been put into practice. Much of it consists of empty words and utopian ideas. I don’t dare to deceive you. I’ll humbly listen to whoever wishes to correct my errors, and bow to him a hundred times.”
So, that’s the first paragraph. And Mao goes on to continue to make the argument that physical education is necessary to cultivate the discipline and strength of will necessary for a regeneration of China’s youth. His main point is that the strength of mind necessary in the cultivation of new leaders, heroic men and women who will lead China out of the chaos of warlord rule and imperialist domination, is rooted in cultivating physical discipline. But, of course, it’s no accident that physical strength will also be necessary in the military battles to come. Even though he is very vague on what those battles will entail, there is clearly an underlying sense in Mao’s writing that some sort of military reckoning will be called for and that for once the forces of progress in China should be both physically and mentally prepared for those battles.
In the interview that Mao gave to Edgar Snow for Red Star Over China in 1936, Mao describes how he implemented his program of physical discipline and how it helped him later on during his years of guerrilla warfare (which were far from over at the time of the interview). Here’s what Mao said there: “We became ardent physical culturists. In the winter holidays we tramped through the fields, up and down mountains, along city walls, and across the streams and rivers. If it rained we took off our shirts and called it a rain bath. When the sun was hot we also doffed our shirts and called it a sun bath. In the spring winds we shouted that this was a new sport called ‘wind bathing.’ We slept in the open when frost was already falling and even in November swam in the cold rivers. All this went on under the title of ‘body training.’ Perhaps it helped much to build the physique which I was to need so badly later on in my many marches back and forth across South China, and on the Long March from Jiangxi to the Northwest.”
So while the ultimate goal of all this physical preparedness that Mao was advocating was the improvement of China, the reason that this is seen as part of a turn toward individualism had to do with how Mao situated all this into his vision for change at the time. It was clear in this article, and is even more clear in other writings of Mao’s from the time, that Mao saw himself as advocating for the development of heroic “superior men” or “sages,” who would rescue China through their powerful efforts of mental and physical heroism.
Here’s how Mao articulated his ideas about the differences between the “superior men” and the “little people,” in a letter he wrote in August 1917:
“When little people burden superior men, the gentlemen should be benevolent and seek to save these little people. Politics, law, religion, rites, systems, and all the superfluous agriculture, industry, and commerce that keep us constantly occupied day by day are not established for the superior man; rather, they are established for the little people. Superior men already possess lofty wisdom and morality; if there were only superior men in the world, then politics, law, rites, systems, as well as superfluous agriculture, industry, and commerce could all be abolished, and would be of no use. It is different when there are too many little people. The world’s management follows the criterion of the majority, at the expense of the part made up of superior men; that is how little people burden superior men. But the little people are pitiable. If the superior men care only for themselves, they may leave the crowd and live like hermits… If they have compassionate hearts, then they [recognize] the little people as fellow countrymen and a part of the same universe. If we go off by ourselves, they will sink lower and lower. It is better for us to lend a helping hand, so that their minds may be opened up and their virtue be increased, so that we may share the realm of the sages with them.”
So, as you can see, when the Mao of 1917 advocated for the physical and mental self-cultivation of a new generation of Chinese leaders, he very much had in mind the self-cultivation of the superior men who would uplift the masses of little people.
It was also at this time that Mao came for a time under the influence of western liberal thinkers, and was for a bit aligned with the liberal modernizing trend in Chinese thought that we have discussed in past episodes.
One of our main sources on Mao’s thinking during this brief, liberal phase of his intellectual development is the set of copious study notes that he took on Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics during the winter of 1917-1918. Paulsen was a neo-Kantian German philosopher who was trendy about a hundred years ago, but who today we would definitely classify as not a very significant philosopher. Probably there are some trendy philosophers today who parallels could be drawn to, but I hesitate to speculate on who will be read a hundred years from now and who will not. In any case, while we know that Mao was intensively reading Aristotle, Bentham, Fichte, Goethe, Hobbes, Kant, Leibnitz, Mill, Nietzsche, Plato, Schopenhauer, Spencer, and Spinoza at this time, it’s his notes on Paulsen that have come down to us.
The notes that Mao made on Paulsen’s System of Ethics shed considerable light on his conception of heroic individualism. Here is one passage where he articulates his thinking:
“The truly great person develops the original nature with which Nature endowed him, and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature. This is what makes him great. Everything that comes from outside his original nature, such as restraints and restrictions, is cast aside… The great actions of the hero are his own, are the expression of his motive power, lofty and cleansing, relying on no precedent. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover.”
In other lines, he wrote:
“My desire to fulfill my nature and perfect my mind is the most precious of the moral laws… The value of the individual is greater than that of the universe. Thus there is no greater crime than to suppress the individual… The churches, the capitalists, the monarchy, and the state constitute the four evil demons of the world… The group in itself has no meaning, it only has meaning as a collectivity of individuals.”
The extreme individualism of these lines have a lot in common with individualist anarchism. They really serve to illustrate how anarchist ideas represent the radical extreme of Enlightenment liberal ideas, rather than representing a break with liberalism. Mao himself at this time did not consider himself an anarchist. But when the May 4th Movement broke out in 1919, Mao did initially move to embrace anarchism more overtly before eventually being won over to Marxism. The development of mass struggle and the movement of the masses served in the May 4th period to help break Mao away from his individualist thinking and to think more in terms of mass struggle, which initially led him to embrace more collectivist anarchist ideas before making the intellectual break with Enlightenment liberal thinking and embracing Marxism by the end of 1920.
So let’s look at what Mao was saying and doing, and how he expressed his transformation from an individualist to a more collectivist anarchist in the May 4th period.
After graduating from college in June 1918, Mao’s favorite professor, who had gotten a position at Beijing University, arranged for Mao to get a job in Beijing University’s library. As you may recall from our last episode, the head librarian at Beijing University was a man named Li Dazhao, who played a leading role in publicizing the ideas of the Russian Revolution and arguing for the relevance of the Russian Revolution for China. Now, the thing is, it’s really tempting to say, look, Li Dazhao said all these things about the importance of the peasantry and the countryside in China’s revolutionary process, and the importance of adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions, rather than just copying dogmatically from Russia. These were ideas that Mao would become known for developing in much greater detail and in practice later on, and so it’s very tempting to say that Li Dazhao had some sort of decisive influence on Mao. And maybe he did. But Mao returned to Hunan to care for his sick mother and take a teaching job in early 1919, before Li Dazhao really got going in talking about all this stuff, so the period in which Mao was at least physically close to Li was before Li really published a lot about this stuff. How much was he talking about things like this with Mao? It’s really hard to say. We’ll come back to this question in just a second here.
So, when Mao went back to Hunan, he lived in the capital, Changsha, and got a job as a teacher. Many of his friends from school who shared his commitment to reforming China had gone to study in France, and so Mao played an important role as a leader among reform-minded youth in Changsha. And when the May 4th Movement broke out in 1919, he founded a journal called the Xiang River Review, named for the river that flows through Changsha. Under the influence of the mass movement that was happening across China, in article that Mao published in the Xiang River Review, we see a dramatic change in Mao’s thinking on the importance of the masses as opposed to the heroic individual.
The major work of Mao’s from 1919 was called the “Great Union of the Popular Masses,” a series of three articles in the Xiang River Review. The first article began like this:
“The decadence of the state, the sufferings of humanity, and the darkness of society have all reached an extreme. Where is the method of improvement and reform? Education, industrialization, strenuous efforts, rapid progress, destruction and construction are, to be sure, all right, but there is a basic method for carrying out all these undertakings, which is that of the great union of the popular masses.”
If the idea of a “great union of the popular masses,” sounds a lot like the anarcho-syndicalist concept of “One Big Union” which was advanced at the time by the Industrial Workers of the World, that is because the concept is in fact very similar, and had a similar theoretical origin. In these articles, Mao put forward that the organizational method for achieving the masses’ liberation would be a federation of smaller unions coming together to form, essentially, one big union. Unlike the IWW, Mao’s idea of one big union was one that would incorporate just about all the people, not just the working class. So for example, students would form their union and they would federate with workers in their union and rickshaw drivers in their union, and so on. To be absolutely clear about the anarcho-communist origins of his thinking on this question, Mao went on to favorably compare the anarchist thinker Kropotkin with Marx. Kropotkin was very popular in China at this time, and was principally identified there with his theory of ‘mutual aid.’ And while Kropotkin’s ideas of mutual aid have been interpreted by anarchists in different contexts in different ways, one of the main ways in which those ideas have been interpreted is precisely that different sectors of society could come together without the mediating influence of the state and cooperate directly to meet their needs in a better way than by having a state. Thus, one big union becomes not just a means of overthrowing capitalism, but also then of restructuring society in the wake of capitalism’s overthrow. (Which is why the phrase ‘building the new society in the shell of the old’ was very popular among anarchists at this time.)
So we can see that the mass movement of the May 4th Movement won Mao over to embrace a mass-oriented politics, and to think of politics in terms of masses liberating themselves from capitalist oppression, which was new. Before May 4th, he was more thinking in terms of heroic individuals exercising their efforts to better China’s situation in a kind of vague way. But clearly, even though he spent a bunch of time working with Li Dazhao in Beijing during his time there, and eventually Mao would take up and elaborate positions that echoed and built on Li Dazhao’s early ways of thinking about adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions, Mao initially went in a much more anarchist direction than Li did (even though Li himself sought to reconcile some of Kropotkin’s ideas with those of Marx when he first started thinking about adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions).
In fact, even though from a distant historical perspective the ideological affinities between Mao and Li Dazhao seem pretty clear, at the time Mao actually initially sided against Li in a major struggle that broke out in 1919 among intellectuals who had been part of the New Culture Movement.
In our last episode, I emphasized how many New Culture Movement intellectuals threw themselves into the May 4th Movement and began looking for revolutionary theories and strategies that would allow them to unite with the masses, particularly the workers, who began going on strike and protesting against Japanese imperialism in June of 1919. Well, as in any situation, when a major change takes places in a large movement or organization, there are those who decide to embrace the new direction, and those who decide that they won’t go forward. There were in fact many New Culture Movement intellectuals who saw where things were going with the May 4th Movement and decided that this was where they were going to get off the train.
In the second half of 1919, one of the major New Culture movement figures, Hu Shi, launched a polemic directed against Li Dazhao in an article titled “More Study of Problems, Less Talk of Isms.” Hu argued that all of this dabbling in Marxism that Li was doing was misguided, and that what China needed was for intellectuals to devote themselves to solving concrete, practical problems. Hu was in fact an adherent of an ism called pragmatism. He had been a student of the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s at Cornell University, and then helped organize a tour that Dewey did in China starting in 1919. So, Hu’s ism was “concrete problem-solving,” taking as a given the overall organization of society and the world as it is. Li responded that the sorts of problems that Hu wanted to solve couldn’t be solved under capitalism and imperialism, and so it was necessary to embrace an ism, like Marxism, which reimagined how society could be organized and which would actually solve the problems that Hu wanted solved. This was a major debate between Marxism and pragmatism that played out over the second half of 1919 for the allegiance of the New Culture Movement intellectuals which was waged by two of China’s most brilliant thinkers.
Now, even though Mao had worked with Li in Beijing, he initially sided with Hu Shi. In September 1919 Mao set up the Problem Study Society, whose name is a give away as to where Mao stood on this controversy. And Mao continued to seek guidance from Hu for another year or so, almost right up to his conversion to Marxism at the very end of 1920. The closeness of Mao and Hu at this time was later embarrassing for both of them, as Hu became the academic leading light of post-1949 Taiwan, and they both played down their earlier closeness after the end of the Chinese Revolution. So it’s interesting to see that Mao had a very eclectic line at this time, vacillating between expressing anarchist ideas and siding with liberal pragmatism in a big national controversy, but also keeping up his ties with the figures who embraced and advocated for Marxism, such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu.
We’ll pick up the story of Marxism’s advance in China in our next episode. If you have made it this far into the episode, I’d like to think that you’re getting something out of this podcast. If you do enjoy or feel like you are learning something from this podcast, I’d like to ask you to leave a review of the podcast, assuming you are listening on a platform that allows reviews or ratings. More reviews and ratings will help more people find the show. And as always, I’m happy to get emails from listeners letting me know about what you liked or didn’t like about the show, or what you have questions about. I am definitely still ‘learning podcasting through podcasting,’ to paraphrase Mao, so feedback is appreciated.