The thinking of Chinese Communism’s two founders, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, diverges as revolutionary experience is gained.
Maurice Meisner, Li Ta-Chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism
Some names from this episode:
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Communist Party, often credited as China’s first Marxist
Chen Duxiu, Co-founder and first general secretary of the Communist Party
Zhang Guotao, Communist leader and opponent of ‘united front from within’ with Guomindang
Welcome to episode 23 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we left off talking about how the united front policy in which the Communist Party worked within the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, had paid off to the benefit of both organizations, but that the success had also increased tensions between the two parties.
We’ve been talking about the united front for some time. And one of the features of this strategy that has come up repeatedly is the way in which the Communist International had pushed the Chinese Communists into adopting this strategy. One of the dangers in talking about the Communist International’s role in determining this strategy, is that one can get the impression that the Chinese Communists themselves were passive, or that they merely carried out orders from Moscow, and that they didn’t have ideas of their own. So, while I think it has been necessary, for the sake of historical accuracy, to talk about the way in which the united front strategy originated in Moscow, what I want to do in this episode is to take a step to the side and show some of the thinking that was going on with Communist thinkers in China itself.
It’s particularly useful to compare the intellectual trajectories of the two founding figures of Chinese Communism, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu. This is because they diverged more and more in their outlooks, and the divergence between them is illustrative of deeper divisions in Marxist thought that would come to the fore in later years.
Li Dazhao and the Idea of the Proletarian Nation
All the way back in January 1920, Li Dazhao had put forward a concept which we’ll call the ‘proletarian nation’ theory. Basically, Li theorized that China was different than the classical cases of capitalist economic development which Marxist theory had mainly concerned itself with because rather than arising from internal causes, the economic changes happening in China resulted from foreign countries coming in and exploiting China. In Europe, the proletariat was only oppressed by their national capitalist class, but in China, the foreign powers oppressed the whole Chinese people (or at least, the vast majority of them, excepting the few collaborators who had sold out their country). The oppression was therefore much more severe, and what followed was that “the whole country has gradually been transformed into part of the world proletariat.” So, if some people argued that China had such a tiny industrial working class and therefore couldn’t have a socialist revolution, Li argued that this didn’t matter, because the whole country stood as exploited proletarians in the context of an interconnected global economy.
Li was making an important argument about how he saw the possibilities for revolutionary consciousness to develop in the minds of people. At the time that Li wrote this article in which he advanced his theory of the ‘proletarian nation,’ most other Marxists would have argued that only the industrial working class was amenable, as a class, to developing an understanding of the need for a socialist revolution. (I specify ‘as a class,’ because individuals from any class were understood to be able make this leap in their thinking, but in talking about large groups, most Marxists at the time, and I think a great many would today as well, would argue that only the industrial workers would be amenable to this sort of leap in consciousness.) And because China had a very small, although growing, industrial working class, mainly concentrated in coastal enclaves, although also on railroads and in mining centers, most Marxists would have said this meant you couldn’t have a socialist revolution in China. Li basically was saying, well, let’s look at China’s position in the world as a whole, if we see the world economy as globally interconnected, and we look at the position of the Chinese people in that economy, then basically the Chinese people are all in the position of exploited proletarians, regardless of whether they are a worker or a farmer or a merchant or a scholar-official, and so there is the potential here for us to have a socialist revolution.
Now, this had a certain resonance with ideas coming out of the Soviet Union which drew on the experience of having a socialist revolution in a largely peasant country like Russia. We talked in episode 15 about the new ideas coming from the Communist International, and from Lenin and Stalin, about the possibilities for revolution outside the industrialized countries. Li’s ideas were different, for example, he was much more optimistic about the possibilities of communist consciousness developing outside of the working class than Lenin and Stalin were. But there was clearly a great strategic resonance and a broader theoretical affinity between the ideas of Li Dazhao and the new ideas coming out of the Soviet Union.
None of this is to say that Li was not concerned with the urban workers. He certainly was. As we discussed in episode 13, he and his students were at the forefront of the Beijing intellectuals who went out to try and unite with the workers who became mobilized during the May 4th Movement. And, as we discussed in episodes 18 and 19, when the Communist Party decided that its strategic orientation following its founding in 1921 should be on organizing the working class, this was a position that Li heartily took up. But whereas some members of the Communist Party, such as Chen Duxiu and Zhang Guotao, saw the overall mission of the Communist Party as being to lead a revolution of the urban working class, Li’s broader conception of the Chinese nation as a whole being proletarian meant that, while Li was happy to focus on workers, he also would later be just as happy about the prospect of organizing other sectors of the population, such as the peasantry.
Fundamentally, Li saw the struggle of the Chinese people for their liberation from oppression by foreigners as being objectively a part of a global revolution against a capitalist world system. And, as part of making the case for this position, Li drew on several articles that Marx and Engels had written about China back in the 1850s.
Of particular importance to Li was Marx’s 1853 article titled “Revolution in China and In Europe,” which began as follows:
“A most profound yet fantastic speculator on the principles which govern the movements of Humanity was wont to extol as one of the ruling secrets of nature what he called the law of the contact of extremes.” Here, Marx is referring to the German philosopher Hegel. I’m not sure how many newspaper readers in 1853 got the reference. This, by the way, is a common rhetorical device that Marx uses when writing his newspaper articles, and it sometimes feels like Marx didn’t think that world events themselves necessarily merited comment unless they could be connected to a more universal concept, such as in this case Hegel’s idea of the ‘contact of extremes.’ But anyways, that’s a discussion for another time. Marx continues, “The homely proverb that ‘extremes meet’ was, in his view, a grand and potent truth in every sphere of life; an axiom with which the philosopher could as little dispense as the astronomer with the laws of Kepler or the great discovery of Newton.
“Whether the ‘contact of extremes’ be such a universal principle or not, a striking illustration of it may be seen in the effect the Chinese revolution seems likely to exercise upon the civilized world.” Here, Marx is referring to the Taiping Revolution, which we discussed in episodes three and four. “It may seem a very strange, and a very paradoxical assertion that the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of Government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire—the very opposite of Europe—than on any other political cause that now exists—more even than on the menaces of Russia and the consequent likelihood of a general European war. But yet it is no paradox, as all may understand by attentively considering the circumstances of the case.
“Whatever be the social causes, and whatever religious, dynastic, or national shape they may assume, that have brought about the chronic rebellions subsisting in China for about ten years past, and now gathered together in one formidable revolution the occasion of this outbreak has unquestionably been afforded by the English cannon forcing upon China that soporific drug called opium. Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces; the superstitious faith in the eternity of the Celestial Empire broke down; the barbarous and hermetic isolation from the civilized world was infringed; and an opening was made for that intercourse which has since proceeded so rapidly…”
The article goes on to discuss the ways in which the integration of China into the capitalist world system might reverberate back on England and the rest of Europe, and contribute to the development of a revolutionary situation in Europe. Li Dazhao placed great importance on this article and on others that Marx and Engels wrote about developments in China during the Taiping Revolution. Here is how Li interpreted the importance of this article and others like it, in his own words:
“After reading this article by Marx we ought very clearly to recognize that in both theory and fact the Chinese revolution is part of the world revolution… The pressure of English imperialism on China has created the Chinese revolution, and the Chinese revolution has in turn influenced England and, through England, Europe, and thus has a role in the world revolution. The Taiping Revolution, which occurred during Marx’s lifetime, was like this, and today the explosion of the whole Chinese nation in the era of the anti-imperialist movement is also like this, and it will be like this until the world revolution is completed. The manifestation of China’s role is daily becoming more obvious, and the tendency for the Chinese revolution to urge on the world revolution is increasing day by day. Since the revolution of the Taipings the main tide of the Chinese national revolutionary movement has generally been pushing forward unceasingly. The imperialist oppression of the Chinese nation has intensified day by day, and therefore the Chinese national revolutionary movement has day by day become stronger… because the only reply to oppression is resistance, and the only response to the ‘order’ with which they repress us is for us to resist their violence, and this means revolution. According to the courtesy of ‘gifts ought to be exchanged,’ disorder should be transported from China to Europe and all the imperialist states. If the imperialists intervene in the movement of the Chinese masses, then, as Marx so well put it, this will only cause the Chinese revolutionary movement to become increasingly militant and hasten to end the commercial enterprises of the powers in China. It has been 73 years since Marx wrote this article. Since then the Chinese revolutionary movement has day by day grown broader and the crisis of Europe has grown ever more severe. In the last two years the development of the proletarian political parties of China and England has had the character of ‘traveling 1000 li in one day,” and in the competition of all the national proletarian movements of the world they have progressed the most. Now at the same time that the Chinese national revolutionary movement has spread throughout the whole country, the English workers have called an unprecedented strike of a million men… is this not the phenomenon of China returning to the West the violence that has been brought to us by the ‘order’ imposed by the armies and warships of the English bourgeoisie? Is not the Chinese revolution the spark that will set off the land mine already planted in the overproduction of the European economic system? Is this not about to produce a gigantic explosion? In the revolution that is imminent, this historic fact will be proved.”
There are two aspects of this theory of Li Dazhao’s that I would like to highlight. The first has to do with its content, and the second with his approach to utilizing Marxist theory. In terms of content, there is an undeniable nationalist element to the ‘proletarian nation’ theory. But it’s not pure nationalism. Li moves back and forth between class and nation, discussing the Chinese nation as a proletariat in world context, and at times making statements such as “only the proletariat is the vanguard of the national revolution,” which he said in 1924 in the midst of the political struggles within the Guomindang between Communists and anti-Communists which we discussed in our last episode. At the end of the day, when Li’s political writings and activities are all taken as a whole, it becomes clear that he was much less interested in the actual class composition of any given political movement, and more interested in the subjective aims of the movement and in the overall effect that the movement was having in society or the world. Clearly, Li did not see consciousness as something that was determined in an immediate way by one’s social class, or at least he didn’t see the consciousness that was shaped by one’s immediate social position as being something which couldn’t be changed. This was an important theoretical leap for Marxists who would eventually lead a revolution relying largely on peasant forces.
As one might guess, this also meant that Li was relatively open to the idea of uniting with other Chinese political groups, such as the Guomindang, which did not base themselves on the proletariat. Chen Duxiu claims that all leading Chinese Communists, including Li Dazhao, opposed the idea of Communists joining the Guomindang as part of the united front strategy when Maring presented them with the Comintern’s orders to do so in August 1922, as we discussed in episode 19. But if this is true, it appears to probably be due to a natural reluctance to suddenly shift strategic course based on orders from abroad. And Maring’s abrasive and commandist style can’t have won him any quick adherents.
But it is also clear that Li was quickly won over to the new strategy, which makes sense, because it was a strategy which fit well with his own views of the multi-class nature of the Chinese Revolution. In addition, he was well known as someone who could get along with everyone in the revolutionary movement, and so it was no accident that Li was the one who set up the meeting with Sun Yatsen where Sun accepted the idea of inducting Communist Party members into the Guomindang. And Li wasn’t alone in this orientation. While in past episodes we have emphasized the opposition to the united front from within strategy which was expressed by Chen Duxiu and Zhang Guotao, there was clearly a whole other set of party members who thought about the alliance in terms more similar to Li.
Most prominent of these was Mao Zedong. In March 1924, a Russian representative of the Communist Youth International, S. A. Dalin, reported that at a plenum of the Communist Youth League in Shanghai Mao had put forward the idea that now that the Guomindang had adopted the version of the Three People’s Principles drafted by the Comintern (as we discussed last episode), it was a revolutionary workers’ party and should be admitted to the Comintern. Dalin also reported that Mao described the whole peasantry, rich and poor, as opposed to capitalism and foreign imperialism, and totally ignored the importance of organizing the workers. There is no other evidence that Mao said these things, so either Dalin misinterpreted what Mao said, or Mao quickly changed his views. But it does seem quite possible that Mao perhaps said something that Dalin interpreted in this light, even if it was an incorrect summation of Mao’s actual views, and that this misunderstanding probably had something to do with Mao holding a more nationalistic and multi-class view of the Chinese Revolution, not dissimilar from or uninfluenced by Li Dazhao’s ‘proletarian nation’ theory.
Now, leaving aside the question of the content of Li’s ideas, or even if they were correct or if they are a legitimate way of developing Marxist theory or not, Li’s development of the ‘proletarian nation’ theory does demonstrate a willingness to adapt and modify Marxist theory to Chinese conditions, and to get pretty creative in doing so. Li wasn’t just taking his understanding of Marxism and using it to schematically create a strategy or theory about the Chinese Revolution. He was willing to make a pretty big departure from Marxist norms and have the confidence to say this was how China fit into the world revolution. I think that, regardless of the actual correctness or incorrectness of the specific ideas which he came up with, this creative attitude and approach was ultimately very important in the success of the Chinese Revolution. The ideas that Mao Zedong would later develop and which would lead the Chinese Revolution to victory are different from those of Li, although Mao does share much of Li’s revolutionary nationalism and his sense that revolutionary consciousness is not mechanically tied to class origins. But more importantly, Mao continued Li’s tradition of creatively adapting Marxism to China’s conditions, even against more orthodox and schematic ways of utilizing Marxism.
Chen Duxiu and Orthodox Marxist Determinism
Which brings us to Chen Duxiu, whose thinking during the years of the united front with the Guomindang had drifted in a much more pessimistic and deterministic direction. If you will recall, Chen had become a co-founder of the Communist Party precisely because he wanted to have a revolution like the Russian Revolution in China. He had tried a lot of things, none of them had worked, and he looked at Russia and saw what they had done and wanted to do that. Fundamentally, Chen started off wanting to have a socialist revolution in China.
But by early 1923, there had been some very dispiriting developments, which we have covered in past episodes. But to sum them up, the big railway union that had been a major focus of Communist labor organizing was crushed with the massacre of February 7, 1923. This massacre both dealt a huge blow to the Communist union efforts in and of itself, but it also highlighted the weakness of the Communists as a political force, and made it seem like they really did not have the organizational strength to stand up to repression by the warlords. This fact convinced Chen and many others to acquiesce to Comintern demands that the overall Communist strategy be shifted from working toward a revolution based on organizing workers in unions, toward building a multi-class revolutionary movement, with a key component of that strategy being having Communists join the Guomindang.
While Li Dazhao did not see a multi-class revolutionary movement being necessarily a retreat away from working toward bringing socialism to China, Chen Duxiu saw things differently. Chen understood Marxism according to a much more orthodox way of thinking. According to his was of thinking, there were two types of revolutions: bourgeois-democratic revolutions led by the capitalist class and their political representatives, and proletarian-socialist revolutions led by the working class and their political representatives. Essentially, Chen saw the defeat of the Communists’ unionizing efforts as demonstrating the futility of working toward a socialist revolution in China. For Chen, the Guomindang represented the bourgeoisie, and so while what Chen wanted to do was to have a proletarian revolution, he reconciled himself to the fact, as he understood it, that historical conditions in China only allowed for a bourgeois-democratic revolution to take place. Therefore, it was his job to further the bourgeois-democratic revolution along, and China would have to wait for the development of objective economic and social developments before it could have a socialist revolution.
In Chen’s words at the time: “The objective strength of the proletariat expands with the expansion of the bourgeoisie and thus if the bourgeoisie of the colonial and semicolonial areas are unable to form a successful revolutionary force, there is no point in talking about the proletariat… The economically and culturally backward countries are not injured by the development of capitalism but rather by the lack of capitalist development.”
As we can see here, Chen was actually articulating a position very similar to the one which the Russian revolutionaries had opposed when they moved forward with their own socialist revolution in 1917. Whereas just a few years earlier Chen had felt that the triumph of the Russian Revolution had showed that even a country with a small industrial proletariat, like Russia and China, could have a socialist revolution, he now was articulating a much more orthodox Marxist theory which had much more to do with the economic determinism and conservatism of the Second International and Karl Kautsky than with the Marxism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. That Chen had adopted this viewpoint, which is known as the ‘theory of the productive forces,’ demonstrates the staying power of the old, non-revolutionary concepts of Second International Marxist orthodoxy. Indeed, as the years go on, we will see the Soviet Union pushing the ‘theory of the productive forces’ on communist parties in the global South, often with disastrous results. In every case where strong local Communist Parties saw their main task as supporting bourgeois nationalist reformers so that eventually capitalism could create a large enough proletariat so there could eventually be a socialist revolution, such as with the governments of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Sukarno in Indonesia, the result in the end was a massacre of the communists and their supporters, and the imposition of brutal military regimes following US-supported coups against the nationalist reformers.
So, to sum up for now, we can see that inside the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-1920s, different leading figures held very different understandings of the united front strategy which they were carrying out, and really very different understandings of the revolutionary possibilities for China. Chen Duxiu was very pessimistic about the possibilities for socialist revolution, but kept soldiering on as the general secretary. Meanwhile, Li Dazhao had a very optimistic picture of the revolutionary potential of the Chinese people as a whole, and was less concerned about the lack of capitalist development or the size of the working class.
Before I bring this episode to a close, I want to remind listeners that you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re covering some complex history and ideas here in a fairly compressed format, and if there is anything that isn’t clear, I would be happy to expand or clarify on things in future episodes. I really welcome hearing from listeners.
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Alright, see you next time.