Gregory Voitinsky comes to China and helps get the ball rolling to found the Communist Party. Also, a few words on commodity fetishism as the keystone of Marx’s Capital and how this leads to Lenin’s innovations in conceptualizing communist party formations.
Some names from this episode:
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern organizer who arrived in China in March 1920
Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, two of the key figures in founding the Chinese Communist Party (their background is discussed in past episodes)
Welcome to episode 16 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
In this episode, the Russians are coming. To China that is.
Back in Episode 13, we learned about how during the May 4th Movement of 1919, many of the New Culture Movement intellectuals went through a transformation where they became very open to Marxism, and in particular Li Dazhao, the librarian and history professor at Beijing University, played a leading role in advocating that Chinese people had something to learn from the Russian Revolution.
And in our last episode, we talked about how, in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the leaders of the Russian Revolution and their international followers began to see possibilities for revolution in places like China which hadn’t seemed possible to Marxists in the past. After all, if largely peasant Russia could have a socialist revolution, why not see if you could make a communist revolution in other peasant countries, like, for example, China. And they started a new international organization, the Communist International, to help bring about revolution around the world.
But before we talk about the Russians coming to China, it’s worth mentioning the many Chinese who participated in the Russian Revolution. As we’ve talked about before, northeastern China was a contested realm. It was of course the homeland of the Manchus, the rulers of the Qing Dynasty which had ended in 1912. But it was an area subject to competition by Russian and Japanese powers who sought economic concessions there and who wanted to take it all over for themselves. As we saw in episode 4, Russia had annexed a large part of Manchuria at the end of the second Opium War in the mid-19th century, and then in episode 9 we saw that Russia carried out ethnic cleansing of Chinese in the region it had annexed during the Boxer Rebellion, turning the Chinese City of Hailanpao into the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk. So, given the contested nature of China’s northeastern borderlands, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that, as the Russians were moving into Manchuria, there were Chinese who went to Siberia, mainly to work on railroad construction. So when World War I broke out, many Chinese laborers who were working in Siberia moved to European Russia to work in order to fill jobs which had been left by Russians who went to fight in the war. And more were recruited in China to come directly to European Russia, so that when the Russian Revolution broke out, there were about 200,000 Chinese workers in Russia. And if the treatment of Chinese workers in France during World War I was bad, as we talked about in episode 13, the treatment of the Chinese in Russia was considerably worse.
So it should come as no surprise then that these Chinese laborers, more or less as a group, supported the Bolsheviks. A Chinese battalion of between eight and ten thousand Chinese workers joined the Red Army, with smaller numbers joining the Communist Party. So as the new Communist International started thinking about the possibilities of revolution in largely peasant countries, it already had some considerable resources to draw on in terms of language abilities and resources of local knowledge in promoting the cause of communist revolution in China.
Already in 1918, the Bolsheviks started sending cadres to China to investigate the state of the social movements there, to sponsor the publication of communist literature (most of which did not achieve wide circulation), and to make contact with Chinese radicals. In 1919, one of these Bolshevik delegations made contact with Li Dazhao and gave him a copy of Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. But the most fateful encounter came in 1920, when Gregory Voitinsky arrived in March heading a delegation which would work with those Chinese radicals who were growing more and more interested in the Russian Revolution as a model for social change to help them found the Chinese Communist Party.
Voitinsky timed his arrival in China for maximum impact. In 1919, the Soviets had drafted something called the Karakhan Manifesto, named after the deputy commissioner for foreign affairs, Lev Karakhan, which renounced all Russian concessions in China. This included privileges like extraterritoriality, where Russian citizens wouldn’t face Chinese courts for crimes committed in China, and special economic concessions. And, if you will recall from episode 11 on the 1911 revolution, how the revolutionary plotters were arrested in the Russian Settlement Area in Wuhan, there were areas in some treaty port cities like Wuhan which were administered by Russians and not by China. So the Soviet Union renounced all these semi-colonial privileges. The one concession that the Soviet Union held on to was control of the China Eastern Railway, which crossed Manchuria and connected Vladivostok with the rest of Siberia much more directly than the circuitous route which wended around China’s northern border. In the original draft of the Karakhan Manifesto, the Soviets gave the railway back to China as well, but by the time it was formally presented to China in early 1920, they had thought better of it. The Manifesto also renounced Russia’s share of the massive and burdensome Boxer indemnity, which you will recall the details on from episode nine.
Regardless, when the Soviets formally presented the Karakhan Manifesto to China, it elicited an instant and massive wave of pro-Soviet feeling in China. After the humiliations of the Versailles Treaty which sparked the May 4th Movement and the ongoing depredations of the European, American and Japanese imperialists, the Karakhan Manifesto showed the Soviet Union to be a foreign power of a different stripe, and it came to be considered, at least for a time, as a friend of China. Voitinsky and his delegation rode in to China, very deliberately, immediately in the wake of the good feeling generated by the Karakhan Manifesto. This period of Sino-Soviet goodwill allowed him a freedom of movement and openness in his activities that earlier, clandestine or semi-clandestine Soviet forays into China had not enjoyed.
Voitinsky’s mission in China was to make contact with Chinese radicals and to help them to begin a process which might lead to the founding of a communist party if they could be won over to see the necessity of founding a party. Voitinsky’s first stop was in Beijing, where he met with Li Dazhao and many of Li’s students from Beijing University who had been active in the Common People’s Education Lecturing Corps. These were students who had been going out to try to unite the student and workers’ movements, like we discussed in episode 13. Many of these students also participated in something called the Morning Garden Society, which was a large anarchist collective household. Li Dazhao and his students formed something called the Society for the Study of Marxist Theory, which was basically a study group so that they could all learn more about Marxism. There seems to have been some ambivalence about the ultimate purpose of this study group. Voitinsky’s aim in encouraging Li to found this group was the create a Beijing nucleus for the later formation of the Communist Party, and this is in fact the role that the study group ended up playing. But at least initially, it seems like Li and many of the participants in the study group did not have aspirations for the group beyond furthering their knowledge of Marxist theory.
The real organizational initiative for founding the party would come from the second communist nucleus formed with Voitinsky’s help, in Shanghai. In May 1920 Voitinsky met with Chen Duxiu in Shanghai. Chen had relocated to Shanghai to get out of reach of the northern warlords after being jailed for three months in 1919 for his political activities in Beijing. As we noted in episode 13, Chen had lost his faith in the power of education to change China, and was more and more interested in the Bolshevik model for social change being played out in the Soviet Union. Voitinsky’s offer to help Chinese radicals move in the direction offered by the Russian Revolution was more or less exactly what Chen was looking for, and soon after Voitinsky’s arrival in Shanghai, a Marxist Research Society was formed. This study group included not only Chen, but other senior radicals, some of whom had been active in bringing socialist ideas to China already.
Chen and Voitinsky wanted to move the study group quickly in a more activist direction, and in particular wanted to transform the group into a self-conscious nucleus for founding a Communist Party. In a June meeting of the group, Chen and Voitinsky moved for the group to take action toward founding a Party, but many of the senior radicals who had been happy to have discussions did not think that China needed a separate Communist Party. After all, didn’t Marxism state that China needed more capitalist development to have a socialist revolution? These figures felt that a revolutionary nationalist group like the Guomindang was more appropriate to China’s situation. Clearly, these radicals drew different conclusions from the Russian experience of socialist revolution in a majority-peasant population country than Chen and Voitinsky did. So, with the efforts to constitute a local nucleus for founding a Communist Party frustrated, Chen and Voitinsky called another meeting in August, which they didn’t invite the people who didn’t want to found a Communist Party to, and there they formed a cell of about ten members who saw their task as preparing for the foundation of the Party.
Chen had remained the editor of New Youth, the flagship journal of the New Culture and May 4th Movements, and beginning with its September 1920 issue, New Youth began to systematically report on events in the Soviet Union and to explain Marxism to a mass audience, in a way that had not happened before in China.
The activism of the Shanghai group won Li Dazhao and the Beijing study group to become more active in organizational efforts, and to get on board with the goal of founding a party. Members of the Shanghai nucleus and from the Soviet delegation helped to start communist cells in Wuhan and Jinan, and Mao Zedong met with both the Beijing and Shanghai groups before going back to Changsha in Hunan Province to start a group there. In every case, the new communist nuclei were based on pre-existing groups of activists who had been involved in the May 4th Movement. For example, in Changsha members of the New Citizens’ Study Society that Mao participated in had been debating for some time about how to accomplish their stated goal of changing China and the world, which was admittedly vague. In the end, they decided that the model of the Bolshevik Revolution was the way that the world could be changed.
Chen Duxiu moved to Guangzhou in November 1920 to take up a position as commissioner of education in the provincial government there, and it was only then that a communist nucleus was formed in that city. Chen’s move to Guangzhou right in the midst of the efforts to gather momentum to found a Communist Party points to a notable early feature of communist activism. Essentially, when Chen moved to Guangzhou, he was putting his career ahead of his revolutionary efforts. After all, Shanghai was the center of the efforts to found a communist party, and Chen had been playing a leading role in that process. All of a sudden, he put that on a back burner for a while as he put his career first. So while later on communist leaders would be expected to devote their lives to the revolution, we can see that as the movement was taking off, things were still very loose organizationally.
So, how did these separate communist nuclei in cities around China go from being separate local groups that wanted to form a Communist Party to actually going ahead and forming one? What was involved in that?
There were two major questions that had to be addressed, one was organizational, and the other was ideological.
The principles for organizing a communist party which were followed, or at least supposed to be followed, by all the parties of the Third International had been worked out by Lenin over the long years of struggle within the Russian Social-Democratic Party between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Lenin’s Bolsheviks advocated a much tighter, more centralized form of party organization than the Mensheviks or other Social-Democratic parties did before the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s ideas on party organization proved to be central to the success of the Russian Revolution, and so the idea was that the Communist parties of the Third International should organize themselves along the lines advocated by Lenin.
Because these party principles are so different from what people in the world today typically think of when they think of a political party, I am going to review some of the main points here.
One of the foundational concepts in Lenin’s ideas on party organization is the difference between the forms of political consciousness that the masses, even the most politically advanced workers, can develop on their own and through the sorts of political and economic struggles which spontaneously arise up under capitalism, and the type of political consciousness that is necessary to see the need for and to carry out a communist revolution. Lenin speaks of the masses being limited, for the most part, to developing trade-union consciousness on their own, and needing Marxist theory to come to understand the need for communism.
After all, fighting for better wages and working conditions, is a pretty different thing than the total reconstruction of society along egalitarian lines. Of course, better wages and working conditions would be a part of the total reorganization of society, but the sorts of changes that Lenin and the communists envisioned went much deeper than that, and ultimately had to do with creating a society where people would be brought up and conditioned very differently than they are under capitalism. But to understand that, you needed to read Marxist theory or have it explained to you. You, the worker, might understand that you were exploited on your own, it was frankly pretty obvious. But you did not understand the whole historical trajectory of human society and the possibility of a different world without some theory which does not just pop into your head.
And fundamentally, this emphasis on the distinction between the spontaneous struggle of the masses and the sorts of communist aims these struggles needed to be diverted into, rested on a different reading of Marx than was dominant in the Social-Democratic movement of Lenin’s day. If the foundational book for Marxism as a political and economic theory of the world is Marx’s masterwork, Capital, then you could say that Lenin’s idea of the party and its role rested on a very different reading of Capital than that of almost everyone of his contemporaries in the workers movement.
Capital is a big book, and it does a lot of things. It lays out the history of capitalist development and reveals the economic workings of the capitalist system, and it really fleshes out Marx’s theory of history and historical development, and the centrality of economic development to society overall. But if you had to single out one aspect of it that was emphasized as sort of the key idea of Marxism in the Social-Democratic movement of the time (and really, this has been true in a lot of times and places, not just back in Lenin’s day), it was something called the labor theory of value. In Capital, Marx demonstrated how all new value is produced through labor. That workers are paid enough for them to reproduce their own labor, that is, to go and get food and have a home and whatever else they needed to keep on surviving, but that if you measured how long and how intensely they worked, you could see that the source of profit for their bosses came from the fact that the workers created more new value than was needed to pay them their wages. The amount of value that workers produce over and above what was needed to pay them their wages is called surplus value.
This labor theory of value exposes a basic injustice in the capitalist system, and was treated by many Social-Democratic leaders as the most essential insight of Marxism. So, if you thought this was the most essential thing about Marxism, you can see how that would focus the mind on things like struggles over wage increases, and struggles over economic demands in general, as the essential issue for Marxists to focus on.
The thing is, Marx himself, while he spent a good deal of time developing his thoughts on this question and of course thought that it was incredibly important in exposing the inherently exploitative nature of the capitalist system, did not think that this was the essence of his own contributions. After all, labor theories of value had been developed before by bourgeois economists like Adam Smith and especially David Ricardo. While Marx’s ideas on the labor theory of value were highly developed and contained many original aspects, they were for him part of developing a larger theory about how economics conditions society overall.
Which brings us to Lenin’s reading of Capital. While of course Lenin, like Marx, saw the labor theory of value as very important in exposing the exploitative nature of capitalism, it was not the most important part of Capital. Rather, the key part of Capital to understand if one is make sense of Lenin’s theory of the party, and the overall vision for socialist society which had its seeds in Lenin’s theory of the party, is a rather short but philosophically very dense part of the book: section four of chapter one of Capital, which is titled “Commodity Fetishism.”
I think very few people can really appreciate the importance of that short section of Capital the first time they read it. I know I certainly didn’t. It’s one of the harder parts of the book to understand. But it rewards repeated efforts, so it you are someone who is inclined to read Capital, I want to encourage you to keep going at that section if it is giving you trouble. In any case, the fundamental thing that Marx argues for in that section is the way in which commodity relations, that is, the idea of exchanging one thing for another, colonizes our minds. Because the exchange of one thing for another, more or less equal values, or, to use the words of some of the biggest douchebags in the world, the need to always be “striking a deal,” characterizes life under capitalism, this way of thinking, this capitalist way of thinking of always exchanging things, of striking a deal or of exchanging one thing for another thing, of having to pay for things or having to get something in return if we give something, infects all aspects of our lives under capitalism, even those that are not about exchanging money or things, like in our emotional lives and intimate relations. Basically, our minds are colonized by the economics of capitalism, because those economics are fundamental to the day-to-day functioning of the world we live in. Somehow, we need to be able to break with that sort of thinking, but for humanity as a whole to break with that thinking, fundamentally they will need to live in and new generations will have to be brought up in a system that does not function like that. By the very nature of our living in this system, our ability to imagine that society is limited, but it’s the necessary break that has to be made.
So, to bring things back to Lenin’s conception of the party, if you take Marx’s section on “Commodity Fetishism” as the keystone of Capital, then it’s obvious that anyone, even the most politically advanced workers, on their own will still carry all this conditioning from capitalist society, and so the party becomes a vehicle not only for educating workers on Marxist theory and the need for a new society, and leading workers to fight for communism and not just for better conditions under capitalism. The party also becomes an organizational form for keeping its members from lapsing into capitalist thinking, it becomes a way of prefiguring communist thinking which breaks with the way in which capitalism has messed up everybody’s heads, however imperfectly it does that, of course, because after all, the party itself can’t stand aside from the capitalist relations that it arose under.
Here’s how Lenin articulated this in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back:
In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organization. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labor for capital, constantly thrust back to the ‘lower depths’ of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organization, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.
So, to bring things back to China in 1920, we can see that turning communist collectives in several cities (and actually including branches among students abroad in France and Japan as well), into a party of the kind envisioned by Lenin was something more complicated than just deciding that they all stood for more or less the same cause and beginning to work together for that cause. Rather, there was a need to create a tight, disciplined organization, and to achieve a high level of unity in terms of how to apply communist ideas to the carrying out of revolution in China. And while it might be possible to unite on the need to do this, actually carrying it out would not be a simple task.
So in our next episode, we will discuss the ideological struggles that were carried out in the process of founding the party.