On the development of early Chinese Marxism

Among other things, I am reading a book called Chinese Marxism by Adrian Chan. It is a bit thin in parts, especially in terms of the Russian Revolution, but the core of the book is excellent. In a devastating chapter, he demolishes what has become a standard position among Sinologists and ‘authorities’ on Chinese Marxism: the early theorists and members of the CCP were deluded and did not understand Marx properly. And since those early leaders became the teachers of Mao, he too misinterpreted Marx. That is, the adoption of Marxism was opportunist and that approach was used as a convenient screen for nationalist and specifically Chinese concerns.

Let us have a closer look at Chan’s points. The key text here is Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard, 1951), which set the agenda and became an ‘authority’. In discussing the key early figures Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, Schwartz proposes that they were opposed to socialism until quite late, they were ‘Manchester Liberals’ even after founding the communist party, they read little Marx, what they read they misunderstood (focusing on peasants rather than workers), their late turn to a misunderstood Marxism was inspired by nationalist resentment after the May 4th Movement, as well as direct Comintern intervention, and they passed on this distorted approach to Mao. That is, they simply used Marxism as a convenient screen for their own political agenda and lust for power. Schwartz’s basic position soon became authoritative, adopted by others, such as Maurice Meisner, Carrère d’Encausse and Schram, and even Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism (1989). And we see it today in the common position among the Left that Chinese communists are that in name only, using Marxism as a convenient ideology for their own very different agenda.

Chan thoroughly demolishes Schwartz’s position, showing that he was highly selective in what he used from these early Chinese Marxists, altered their texts, left out crucial sections of those texts and attributed works to them that they had not written. And as Chen points out, Schwartz had been appointed to Harvard by both the Departments of Government and of East Asian Studies. The head of the latter department, John King Fairbank, made it quite clear that the purpose of Asian Studies at Harvard was to train ‘capable’ intelligence officers, who would ‘contain’ and resist the ‘disaster’ of ‘modern Asian totalitarianism’. That sounds strangely familiar today, echoed in quarters as apparently different as Rick Santorum and Slavoj Žižek.

Dirlik is particularly interesting, since he at least claims to be a Marxist. Yet his 1989 book makes many of the same Cold War assumptions: the Chinese turn to communism was a direct result of intervention by the Comintern (based in Moscow and decidedly Bolshevik); they misunderstood communism as social democracy; they did not understand Marxism ‘in its totality’. Apart from the fact that Marxism is not a total philosophical system, Chan also points out that in the early decades of the 20th century some key texts by Marx and Engels had not even been published (Grundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), so no-one would have been able to know it in its ‘totality’.

Here I would add Eagleton’s recent Why Marx Was Right (2011), which carries on this venerable tradition. Holding to a romantic Marxism, in which the true revolution is yet to come, Eagleton argues that the Chinese communist revolution – along with all of the others from Russia to Vietnam – was deluded and misdirected. Why? A proper communist revolution should take place only in an advanced capitalist context. Given that the Chinese revolution occurred in a largely pre-capitalist, agricultural country, it was both a travesty of Marxism and bound to ‘fail’. Obviously, it has been a while since Eagleton seriously read Marx.

Back to those early Chinese communists: the reality is, of course, quite different, for Chen and Li and others engaged in intensive study of Marx and Engels well before 4 May 1919, using the library under Li’s direction with over 70 works by our good friends, engaging in active translations, and publishing items on Marxism in very influential journals from 1915. They worked closely with texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Civil War in France and the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And they were particularly interested in the points made by Marx and Engels that there was never a ‘master-key’ based on a supra-historical and ‘general historico-philosophical theory’. Rather, the path to communism will take very different forms, depending on particular historical, social and economic factors, or, in their words, ‘on the historical conditions for the time being existing’.


14 thoughts on “On the development of early Chinese Marxism

  1. Who said anything about a scientific progression of epochs? Marx certainly didn’t. But Chan and Hart-Landsberg-Burkett have this in common: they follow a tired old ‘fall narrative’. Once upon time there was a true socialist revolution, but it gave into temptation and sinned. You see it with the Russian Revolution first. Chan does this at the end of his book as well. Some at MR are particularly guilty of this, with Foster et al holding up a romantic, ideal Marxism to which no one has thus far attained. Good approach if you are a Western Marxist, since then you avoid the uncomfortable fact that no successful revolution has happened in the West.

    1. Nice sleight of hand there: master narrative is definitely not the same as ‘scientific progression of epochs’. And where, pray tell, was there a successful communist revolution in the West?
      Seriously, though, you should actually read Marx and at least some of the rich Marxist tradition, for you are beginning to sound a little too much like a romantic Western Marxist.

    2. The old trap of ethics. As soon as you begin playing that game, you are in dangerous territory – an article in Rethinking Marxism soon to appear deals with that. In order to step outside such a ruling class discourse, you may wish to ask the Greeks or the Spaniards about their preferences.

      But perhaps a more apt series would be Critical Phrenology, as that pertains to historical critical approaches to the Bible. But hey, what’s wrong with phrenology? It’s day is yet to come. A possible successor to Remnants of Giants? You could even set up a practice. post thesis…

    3. While Michael Foot’s remarks are couched in moral terms, I myself don’t see it as requiring the anti-capitalist to subscribe to an ethic. In place of the “I ought” of ethics, I prefer “I desire” (Nietzsche’s naturalism)– to hell with rich, that’s my desire.

    4. I think this (from the Communist Manifesto) is a much better reason (for someone objectively petty bourgeois becoming a communist): “The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”

    5. It applies to any petty bourgeois who would become a communist/socialist (rather than a petty bourgeois socialist).

  2. Isn’t treating Marxism and Phrenology and Theology with the same antiquarian interest the flip side of disciplinary chauvinism?

    1. Actually, I take that back. It was uncharacteristically unfair of me. I should have written: In your effort to escape the snare of disciplinary chauvinism, you have merely entangled yourself further in the trap.

      1. At this dual moment of trying to have the last word and accusing one another of either impossible intellectual acrobatics or illogical arguments, it is worth remembering that what seems logical on Monday after breakfast, does not seem so late on Wednesday and may once again over a beer on Friday. This applies as much to petty thieves, judges in courts, supposedly rational and critical intellectuals, philosophers, PhD students etc.

  3. I think you are spot on about Eagleton and the typical post-war “Western Marxist” (poor LUkcas!) tradition–they definitely live up to the name and appear deeply and happily Eurocentric. Fine, but then let’s leave them in decaying Europe then and read other people. As for Dirlik he is just an anarchist and his Marxism consists entirely of every now and then referring to “capitalism” in a very general way and saying we need to take it more seriously. True enough but not exactly marxist brilliance there. His early books on Party history are pretty good– though colleagues tell me they have been surpassed by new archives, etc. His attempts at being a “theorist” are pretty lame– he is a conventional historicist and not up to the task frankly. He’s now mostly renowned for attacking postcolonial studies in an ad hominem way. Ironically he’s probably more widely read in that field and for that reason than in China studies. He’s also infamous for his treatment of people on the left. I think he tried to savage Chan’s book in a review iirc.

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