The Origins of Chinese Communism


Arif Dirlih, The Origins of Chinese Communism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1989, pp315, £9.95


This is a work of most intensive scholar ship, one of the few to provide fresh in formation and insight into the origin and peculiarities of Chinese Communism. The future development in China of both Stalinism and Trotskyism cannot be understood without it, and the data it provides can be used for comparison with the emergence of revolutionary movements in other countries during similar stages of radicalisation and industrialisation. The model constructed by the author begins with a loose network of circles of intellectuals with a diffuse and abstract Anarchist/populist ideology concerned mainly with problems of culture, whose limitations are painfully revealed in the defeat of the May Fourth Movement. The growth of a working class, and the impact of the War and the Russian Revolution lead to a turning to ‘Marxism’, whilst at the same time the need for organisation leads to the formation of a Communist Party. Just as Anarchism answered to the needs of the previous movement, Marxism seemed to meet the requirements of the new period. Comintern intervention thus fell on fertile soil, so that the Chinese revolutionaries in effect accepted Marxism without understanding it, and in a version that owed more to Kautsky than it did to Marx or Lenin, at least to begin with.

The book reveals a rich ideological ferment in China before the foundation of the CCP in July 1921. The most widespread ideology among the intelligentsia was Anarchist, in the form of Kropotkin's ‘mutual aid’, and here the author demonstrates that both Cold War and Chinese Stalinist historians have systematically neglected this background which fits so uneasily with their preoccupations (pp.3-4). Even Chinese perception of what had happened in Russia in 1917 came to them largely influenced by Anarchism (pp.25ff.). Yet here it is strange not to find any reference to the standard treatments of the early years of Chinese Anarchism, Robert Scalapino and George Yu’s The Chinese Anarchist Movement (1961) and Albert Meltzer’s The Origins of the Anarchist Movement in China (1968). For if official historiography did its best to forget the Anarchist contribution, the Anarchists never did.

Other forms of thought jostled – or rather co-existed ’ with the general Anarchist overlay, and it is remarkable to discover that English Guild Socialism as popularised by G.D.H. Cole also enjoyed a respectable following (pp.129-30, 133-4). A striking parallel with the development of revolutionary ideology in Russia was the emergence of a sort of ‘legal Marxism’ among the left intellectuals of the Guomindang, almost a mirror image of the theories of Peter Struve, and the writer makes clear that in fact it was this group which probably had the clearest perception of what Marxism was, rather than the future leaders of the Communist Party (pp225-34, 267). Even after 1921, apart from what came in from the Comintern, “what there was in the way of independent Marxist literature came not from the Communists but the Marxists in the Guomindang” (p.269). And as in other countries where class antagonisms have not developed sufficiently to pose class questions, feminism also gained considerable support (p.67).

Having accepted Marxism as a by-product of their need for organisation, the early Chinese Communists took it over in its orthodox Second International version. Apart from the appearance of Lenin’s State and Revolution late in 1920, for the first few years Marxist literature in translation was limited to the Communist Manifesto, Wage Labour and Capital, Liebknecht’s biography of Marx, and Kautsky’s Economic Doctrine of Karl Marx and The Class Struggle, and with their Anarchist background it is not surprising that they found what they took to be Marxism’s economic determinism to be repugnant. As the writer comments, “Marxism in China was converted into a political movement too rapidly to allow time to find out about the theory, let alone apply it to the analysis of Chinese society” (pp.97-8), with the result that “the Communists themselves were riot to re-evaluate their assumptions concerning Chinese society until after 1927, when the Party’s policies, first having given it enormous power and prestige, had brought it within a few years to the verge of extinction” (p.l5).

When this re-evaluation began to take place, it is significant that it took the form of a reversion of Chinese Communism to its origins. In the case of Mao Zedong the writer supports Scalapino’s analysis that the strongest influence on him in 1919 was Kropotkin, whose thought he described as “broader and more far-reaching” than that of “the party of Marx” (p.178), and which he continued to support until the end of 1920 (p.206). The May Fourth Movement was, of course, a ‘Cultural Revolution’, and whilst noting that Meisner sees ‘populism’ as a salient feature of Chinese ‘Marxism’ from Li Dazhao to Mao, the writer drops the significant hint that “some have blamed the ‘Anti Party’ activities of the Cultural Revolution upon Anarchism” (p.271). In this way Mao promoted Anarchist-sounding ideas “to serve an authoritarian political structure” and “to undermine the Party” (p272).

It is significant also that Mao’s essay in support of Anarchism bore the title The Great Union of the Popular Masses (p.178), and he had a predecessor in Jiang Kanghu, the founder of China’s first Socialist Party, who rejected the idea of class struggle and was the first in China to use the term ‘New Democracy’ (p.139). When Mao turned once more to these notions in the ’thirties, he was only repeating what he had already said in 1919, that “as for the aristocrats and capitalists, it suffices that they repent and turn towards the good” (p.179).

One of the other directions taken by part of the leadership of the Party was, of course, Trotskyism. Here the author indicates that “now the political animus against Chen Duxiu that has long dominated Chinese historiography has subsided, at least relatively speaking, Chinese scholars admit that Chen Duxiu, not Li Dazhao, was responsible for the founding of the party in 1920-1921” (p.196, cf. also p.151). He shows how Chen, to his credit, was particularly suspicious of the alliance with the Guomindang imposed by Moscow, a policy which was “pushed through the party against the will of some of its older leaders” only “with the aid of younger members who had been persuaded in Moscow” (p.267). In a certain sense, Chen’s conversion to Trotskyism after the 1927 catastrophe also took the form of a reversion to origins, just as with Mao Zedong. The reader would have to be blind not to see in the debate with the ‘legal Marxists’ a groping towards the theory of Permanent Revolution:

The most interesting aspect ... was the upholding of Socialism’s relevance in contemporary China. Most fundamental was the argument that it was meaningless to speak of whether or not capitalism existed in China, since in the age of international capital, no distinction could be made between Chinese and foreign capitalism or capitalists. This argument (again an important Trotskyist argument later on in the decade) was shared by all Communist participants in the debate, including Li Dazhao, who, in his only contribution, insisted that there were no economic boundaries in the contemporary world. There was an accompanying argument, again one that Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu shared. While insisting on the unity of world capitalism, Chen argued that all Chinese held the position of labourers vis-a-vis foreign capital! China could not develop because Chinese capitalists were under the sway of foreign capital; real economic independence could only be achieved, therefore, through a workers' revolution. (p.232)

A significant number of those who held this view were later to side with Trotskyism. Li Ji argued that Marx was only human, that not all his ideas were eternally valid, and that “times had changed since Marx had formulated his historical theory, and new times required new explanations and solutions” (p.233), whilst Liu Renjing, who was the only one at the founding conference of the Communist Party “to hold an unequivocally Bolshevik position” (p.249) “argued for the immediate adoption of the policies of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.247). In the passing over of this layer to the support of the theory of Permanent Revolution we can see that the evaluation of the crisis of 1927 led back to the original Marxist insights of the first generation of Chinese revolutionaries.

We are now able to examine the ‘tragedy of the Chinese Revolution’ in all its thought forms. As opposed to the first healthy instincts of the founders of Chinese Marxism, “decisions concerning the revolution were made for them by others, who claimed political superiority because they commanded theoretical superiority” (p.98), leading to “rocky relations” (p.197) and mutual mistrust (p.267). Having awakened Chinese Marxism, the Comintern, first of all of Zinoviev, and then of Stalin, stifled it, and a real examination of China in the light of a critical analysis had to wait until after the defeat of 1927, when it was too late to have a positive effect. As the author of this study so succinctly states it, “ideological cliches replaced a burgeoning Marxist inquiry into Chinese society that would not be revived seriously until it became evident in the later 1920s that the revolutionary strategy based on those cliches had failed” (p.l4). The fact that the writer of this book believes that the orthodoxy of the Comintern was Marxism, and that the revolutionary strategy that was appropriate to China was Mao’s peasant ‘Socialism’ does not alter the fundamental validity of this insight.

Serious enquirers should not allow themselves to be put off by this, or by the customary trendy genuflections to Hobsbawm, Kolakowski, Williams and Althusser, any more than they should be upset by the consistent misspelling of Stepniak’s name. These are trivia which in no way interfere with the massive learning and compelling logic in this work. It is by far the finest treatment of its subject in. the English language since the publication of the original edition of Harold Isaacs’ book.

Al Richardson