Polemics with non-revolutionary Marxists and anarchists, and then the party congress in July 1921.
Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, editor of New Youth and leader of Shanghai Communist nucleus
Gregory Voitinsky, Leader of Comintern delegation to China in 1920
Karl Kautsky, Second International theorist of economic determinist Marxism
Li Dazhao, Beijing-based revolutionary Marxist leader
Zhang Dongsun, Exponent of a non-revolutionary interpretation of Marxism
Ou Shengbai, Guangzhou anarchist and former student of Chen Duxiu
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and Comintern leader in China beginning in 1921
Zhang Guotao, emerged from founding congress as important Communist leader
Li Hanjun, advocated study and propaganda as main party activities as first congress
Liu Renjing, one of the Beijing delegates to the first party congress
Welcome to Episode 17 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We left off the last episode talking about the organizational leap that was necessary for the scattered communist collectives around China to come together as a party according to the Leninist model of organization that was required of the communist parties which were being formed around the world and which were affiliating with the Third International.
That was the big organizational challenge that was facing the Chinese communists and their Comintern advisors during 1920 and early 1921. But there was also a key task of ideological clarification and demarcation that had to be carried out as part of preparing the way for formally founding the party.
On the one hand, the new Chinese communists wanted to make the case for why their interpretation of Marxism was correct, against other, competing notions of Marxism which were floating around among Chinese intellectuals and political activists. And they also wanted to make the case that their revolutionary strategy, derived from the experience of the Russian Revolution, was the correct strategy for changing China. On this point, they were mainly demarcating themselves from anarchism, which had been very influential in the May 4th Movement, and had really influenced most of the people who founded the Chinese Communist Party, and was influential among a much broader set of revolutionaries who they hoped to win to join the Chinese Communist Party.
So, there were two main polemics which were waged here, one against other Marxists, and which mainly served to argue for a revolutionary interpretation of Marxism against a bunch of intellectuals who did not really draw revolutionary conclusions from Marxist theory. And a second polemic which was waged among people committed to revolution, which argued that the model of the Russian Revolution, and the interpretation of Marxism which guided the Russian Revolution, was the real path to revolution in China (as opposed to anarchism). The different audiences affected the way in which these polemics were carried out. On the one hand, the polemic against the non-revolutionary Marxists was much sharper and more antagonistic in tone than the polemic carried out with the anarchists, who were seen more as comrades on the revolutionary path who needed to be won over to the correct strategy.
The Polemic with the Anti-Revolutionary Marxists
These polemics began with an article that Chen Duxiu published in the September 1920 issue of New Youth, titled “On Politics” or “Talking about Politics,” depending how you translate it, and carried on through the founding of the Communist Party in July 1921. One of the interesting things about the polemic with the non-Communist Marxists was that many of them had been Marxists longer than, and read more Marxist theory than, most of the people who founded the Communist Party. You might remember from the last episode, when we talked about the initial attempts of Gregory Voitinsky and Chen Duxiu to pull together a Communist nucleus in Shanghai, there were some senior activists there who had read quite a bit of Marxism and who refused to go along with founding a Communist Party, saying that China needed to develop more economically for that to be appropriate.
So you had a kind of strange situation where people who were coming together to found the Communist Party because they found the Russian model of revolution compelling but hadn’t, for the most part, read too much Marxist theory, were polemicizing with people who had read more Marxist theory, but were mainly interested in using Marxism as a theoretical framework for analyzing society and were not particularly interested in making revolution. In fact, there had been a very strange phenomenon among some Chinese intellectuals in 1919 when the labor movement came onto the scene, where they began to read about socialism and Marxism and formulated allegedly socialist ideas not in order to promote class struggle, but rather to promote class reconciliation in the hopes of avoiding the escalation of the class struggle which was emerging onto the political scene in China.
Not all of these non-revolutionary Marxists thought exactly the same thing, but a common theme was the idea that China needed much more development, and so the role of socialists should be to promote that development in a way which lifted the country out of its general poverty, and to promote cooperatives among the workers as much as possible so as to mitigate the negative effects of capitalist development on the workers. Essentially, they wanted to try to make capitalist development lift all boats to whatever degree possible, while avoiding major social conflict.
To be fair, the sources of their ideas of what Marxism and socialism were tended to be at some remove from the original writings of Marx. One important influence was the theoretical bigwig of the Second International, Karl Kautsky, who had written works to explain and popularize Marxism which had circulated around the world in several languages. If you will remember from our episode on the Communist International two episodes ago, Kautsky was who Lenin was arguing against in the quote we pulled from Lenin’s article “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism.” And so, the Marxism that these May 4th intellectuals who were interested in socialist ideas in order to promote class conciliation, not class struggle, had found was actually fairly congenial to their purposes, since it was so economically deterministic in emphasizing the peaceful and slow evolution of the productive forces and the eventual building up of peaceful workers parties like the one which had existed in Germany and had ended up supporting the German imperialist rulers during World War I.
When Li Dazhao, who is more-or-less officially regarded as China’s first Marxist, first encountered this Marxism in 1919, before he became a big proponent of the sort of Marxism coming out of the Soviet Union, his response was that Marxism’s economic determinism subverted revolutionary consciousness. It was his emphasis, and that of the other founders of China’s Communist Party, on questions of revolutionary consciousness and on how to ethically reform China’s society, which led him to Lenin’s Marxism and to reject the Marxism of the Second International. And this polemic, between the Communists and the non-revolutionary Marxists, very much served to clarify the questions involved in the debate and to hand over the mantle of Marxism to the Chinese Communists, because in their responses to Communist criticism the non-revolutionary Marxists exposed their lack of a positive program for China more and more. At one point one of them, Zhang Dongsun, even argued that a Leninist revolution could never happen in China because the foreigners would never let it happen, essentially dismissing out of hand even the possibility of struggling to end foreign domination in China. Against the determinism of Zhang Dongsun and his like, Chen Duxiu argued that the crises that capitalism had already created in the world, particularly in Europe, showed that it was not a viable development model. Besides that, there could be no independent development for China unless the foreign imperialists were thrown out of the country anyways. Therefore, in cooperation with workers of other countries, and in particular the Soviet Union, China would have a revolution and develop on its own according to the development model being charted by the Soviet Union.
In the end, many of the non-revolutionary Marxists drifted further and further to the right, with some even ending up joining the right-wing of the Guomindang, which would later persecute and murder Communists.
The Polemic with the Anarchists
The polemic against anarchism had a very different character to it. First of all, almost all of the polemic was carried out in internal Communist publications, such as The Communist, which was launched in November 1920 and served as an internal theoretical journal for China’s Communists. This was because many anarchists were participating in China’s party-building process, and even many non-anarchists had been deeply influenced by anarchist ideas which had been very popular in the New Culture and May 4th Movements. If you will recall from last episode, a whole bunch of Li Dazhao’s students in Beijing who participated in the Society for the Study of Marxist Theory had been members of the anarchist Morning Garden Society collective household. And our 14th episode was all about Mao Zedong’s years as an anarchist.
Fundamentally, you had a situation where there were a lot of anarchists who had become discouraged that their previous organizing strategies hadn’t been working, and they looked at Russia, and they said, “we want to do that, let’s have a Russian Revolution here in China.” And so they committed themselves, on some level, to moving forward and trying to do that, but they basically still were anarchists. They knew they wanted a revolution, and they knew that the Bolsheviks had made a revolution, and so they wanted to learn from the Bolsheviks. But whether or not they could change their ideas enough to become Marxists, which would be necessary in order to have a revolution in China, or not, was kind of an open question. In the end, some did and some didn’t and they ended up leaving.
So, because of this situation, the polemics carried on against anarchism were much more comradely in tone than the polemics that were carried out against the non-revolutionary Marxists. One of the main points in the polemic was that anarchists and communists both share the same final end goal, a stateless and classless society; a society based on the idea of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” One of the main points that the communists raised in relation to this point was the one of, how are we going to get to that end goal? There has to be some concept of how to get from here to there, both in the sense of having the revolution in the first place, but then also how to develop society economically to the point where there would be enough abundance to meet everyone’s needs in the future stateless society. It was precisely this question of having a plan which seemed like it would actually work which was drawing anarchists into the Chinese Communist Party.
If the polemic had remained confined to the pages of The Communist, which was a semi-secret journal, there would not have been an anarchist rejoinder to the arguments being made by the Communists. But in early 1921 Chen Duxiu laid out some of the arguments against anarchism in a public lecture in Guangzhou, and one of his former students, Ou Shengbai, wrote an open letter in response which was published in a local movement newspaper. What followed was an exchange of letters, going back and forth between Ou and Chen.
One of the main issues that emerged was the question of how much an individual should have to submit themself to a group, either as part of society in general, or as part of a revolutionary organization carrying out a strategy. This was a key question, because the strategy that the Communists advocated relied on having a very tight party-formation, in which party members would have to obey party decisions, even if they disagreed with those decisions or had unanswered questions about those decisions. The basic organizational principle of the Leninist party is something called democratic centralism, which allows for broad discussion and debate in certain contexts, but which requires everyone involved to abide by decisions that are made by the group, and also decisions made at higher levels in the group. In practice, democratic centralist organizations have pretty much always been heavy on the centralism and light on the democracy. It has, at times, made for very tight and effective organizations, with relatively small groups of dedicated people, like in the Russian Revolution, able to accomplish great things. But the centralism also has historically been very alienating for many intellectuals and free spirits who have joined Communist Parties. It’s one of the major contradictions in the nature of Communist Parties. On the one hand, for a Communist Party to be a real, vibrant organization that can change the world for the better, it has to be made up of dynamic, energetic people with rebellious spirits. But on the other hand, historically at least, Communist Parties have often required their members to more or less shut up and get to work, which is not exactly an attractive prospect for most people who have a rebellious spirit. Even before the party was founded in China, this contradiction was prefigured in the debate between Chen Duxiu and Ou Shengbai. And we’ll see this problem cropping up again and again, and it will be interesting to see how Mao Zedong himself deals with this issue, when this problem comes up in his own life as a party militant before he became the leader of the Communist Party. But that will have to be in an episode in the future. Anyways, it is not surprising that this issue of whether or not individual revolutionary activists should be expected to subordinate their own individual will to that of the collective party organization came out as one of the big issues between Chen Duxiu and Ou Shengbai.
The Founding Congress
The founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in July 1921. It opened at a girls’ school that was on summer holiday in the French Concession area of Shanghai, but it had only been going on for four days when some of the delegates to the congress narrowly escaped a police raid on the rooms where one of them was staying. After that, the congress was relocated onto a rented tourist boat on a lake in Jiaxing that was a popular destination about 80 miles southwest of Shanghai.
The congress had been convened by the new Comintern leader in China, a Dutch Communist named Henk Sneevliet, who went by the alias Maring. He had lived in the Dutch East Indies, today’s country of Indonesia, and become involved in the anti-colonial movement there from 1914-1918, when he returned to Europe and joined the Communist movement. He went to the 2nd Comintern Congress in Moscow in 1920 as a representative of the Communist Party of Indonesia, where he got himself elected to the Comintern’s Executive Committee. And from there he was sent to China.
If Gregory Voitinsky, the leader of the 1920 Comintern delegation to China, and who had returned to the Soviet Union in November of 1920, had been a diplomat, then Maring was more of a missionary. Voitinsky’s style in working with Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu and the other Chinese radicals who would become founders of the Chinese Communist Party had been more one of having discussions, making suggestions, and giving them access to the accumulated knowledge of the Russian revolutionary experience. He didn’t force his views, and allowed for the Chinese revolutionaries to take the lead and initiative in pulling together the forces which would go into founding the Communist Party.
Maring’s style was quite a bit more authoritarian. The founding congress was called on his authority alone. Even Chen Duxiu, who after all was going to be named general secretary of the party at the congress, was not consulted, only informed, that the congress was going to take place. (A fact that may well have informed his decision not to attend, but we’ll talk about that in just a minute.) In the words of Zhang Guotao, who emerged from the first congress as one of the party’s leaders and who was politically aligned with Maring on many issues (and thus fairly sympathetic to him), Maring saw himself as “an angel of liberation to Asian peoples.”
Despite Maring’s domineering manner, serious debate over substantial issues did break out at the congress. The first major point of contention was about what the relationship between the party and the Comintern would be. Some members advocated independence from the Comintern, as least as regards the party’s work in China. That is, they wanted international affiliation with the Comintern, but for the Chinese party members to determine what exactly the party would be doing in China. The main spokesman for this position, Li Hanjun, also thought that the party members didn’t really know enough Marxism yet to set policy intelligently, and so thought that they should dedicate themselves just to study and propaganda for the time being. He even advocated sending delegates to the Soviet Union and to Germany, to explore further the differences between the Bolsheviks and the German Social Democrats. Given the attention that the party press had been paying to the polemics against the anti-revolutionary version of Marxism which the German Social Democratic Party represented, we might be surprised here to see the continuing influence of non-Bolshevik ideology among the delegates to the Chinese Communist Party’s founding congress. But this just shows how persistent old ideological influences can be, even among people who have made a formal commitment to embracing a new belief system.
The representatives from Beijing, Liu Renjing and Zhang Guotao, took the lead in arguing against Li Hanjun. Liu in particular, having just read Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, and feeling very militant about the importance of tight party organization and the need for class struggle and an activist orientation, took the lead. This need for tight organization extended to accepting Comintern leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. In the end, it is not surprising that Maring endorsed the positions being put forward Liu Renjing and Zhang Guotao, and guided the congress toward a resolution of the question in favor of Comintern leadership of the Chinese Party.
But this does bring up an important question: Why did these Chinese Communists, intelligent and in many cases seasoned activists, accept Comintern leadership so readily? After all, the Chinese revolutionaries knew the Chinese scene way better than Maring did. It doesn’t make sense if you think of the party as having been formed by independent Marxist intellectuals who founded the party out of a sense that this was what their ideology called on them to do. And it also doesn’t make sense if you think of the party as being formed by Chinese nationalists who saw in Marxism the best way to realize their nationalist aspirations. But it does make sense if you think of the party’s founding as fundamentally arising out of the initiative of the Comintern, in coming to China, finding the radicals who wanted to reproduce the Russian Revolution in China, and then calling for the founding of the party.
There was an inherent teacher-student relationship in this process from the beginning. When Voitinsky was the Comintern representative in China in 1920, he was more of a “guide-at-the-side” type of teacher, and it wasn’t so bad for men like Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, who were used to being leading figures themselves. But Maring was difficult for them to deal with. Chen Duxiu, after being named general secretary of the party, did eventually relocate to Shanghai, where the party center was located, later in 1921. But he and Maring famously did not get along, and clearly the situation got on Chen’s nerves, apparently causing him to behave erratically. Chen repeatedly moved around the city without telling anyone his new address, threw temper tantrums, and avoiding Maring whenever he could, even skipping meetings where Chen was expected to give progress reports on party work.
In reality, the first party congress turned out to be something of an ambiguous achievement. The party center in Shanghai really barely functioned as such, and the commitment of many of the delegates to the first congress to the party was questionable. Two of the delegates continued on with plans to study abroad afterwards, essentially abandoning the party. Others drifted off. And indeed, the lack of attendance at the congress of Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu shows that, even among the leading figures most associated with the party, there was some ambiguity about their actual commitment. Soon, they would both demonstrate great commitment to the cause, especially Li Dazhao. But, at least as things stood in 1921, the congress represented a very uncertain step forward, and it really does not seem to have been taken overly seriously by many of the participants, judging by their behavior immediately afterwards.
There were very important exceptions, however. Mao Zedong went back to Changsha and got to work. Zhang Guotao took over the organizational department of the party and set up the party’s labor secretariat, beginning to lead the labor organizing work that the party jumped into in the wake of the congress. Soon, the party would become a much more real thing for those who decided to remain in it and participate. But at least initially, it had something of an unreal quality, it remained after the declaration of the party’s founding for the party to be turned into a real social force by those members who would pick up the ball and run with it.