In China in the 1890s, responding to the inability of the traditional Confucian sociopolitical order to respond effectively to Western commercial and military penetration, there emerged an intellectual tendency among the youth of the dominant landlord-gentry class to reject Confucian values and institutions. These defectors from their class were influenced by Western ideas, such as the notion that human progress, interpreted as economic development and the conquest of nature, occurs on a basis of individual initiative (Meisner, 1999:10-13). However, their rejection of Confucianism was not without mixed feelings, for they “retained a deep emotional tie to traditional Confucian moral values” (1999:13).
In spite of their critique of traditional Chinese values and institutions, the disaffected intellectuals were highly nationalistic. They were reacting to the imperialism of Japan and the European colonial powers, which were aggressively threatening China with territorial dismemberment. Their writings and protest activities reflected “a new nationalist commitment to China as a nation-state in a world dominated by predatory imperialist nation-states.” They hoped “to build a strong Chinese state and society that could survive and prosper in a hostile international arena” (Meisner, 1999:12).
After the fall of the monarchy in the Revolution of 1911, Confucianism was discredited further by its ties to the government of the republic, which was politically and socially conservative and corrupt. In the period 1915 to 1919, the New Culture Movement emerged, characterized by a total rejection of Confucian values and institutions. The movement had faith in Chinese youth, who were less corrupted by traditional values, and who were to be the bearers of a new Chinese culture. In addition, the Movement believed in the power of ideas to change social reality, in spite of limitations established by social and economic conditions. Its foremost proponent was Chen Duxiu, an ardent defender of French democracy and culture. The New Culture Movement, however, was socially isolated and politically powerless (Meisner, 1999:15-16).
Political developments in 1919 enabled the intellectuals to overcome their social isolation and political impotence. In that year, the Western powers decided at the Versailles peace conference to transfer the German concessions in the Chinese province of Shandong to Japan. The decision provoked a demonstration on May 4 of more than 3,000 university students in Beijing. Violent confrontations with police and arrests inflamed nationalist sentiments, such that an anti-imperialist movement by students, professors, workers, and merchants emerged. During what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, popular demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of foreign goods, and violent confrontations swept the cities of China (Meisner, 1999:17).
In the context of this political turmoil, many intellectuals experienced an intellectual conversion. They no longer looked to the “democracies” of the West as the ideal model; they turned away from Western liberal ideologies, which sanctioned the existing imperialist world order. They looked for guidance to Western socialist ideas and Marxism, which provided Chinese intellectuals with a perspective for rejecting both Confucianism and Western imperialism. In addition, the intellectuals were transformed into militant and politically active nationalists, seeking to organize the people and lead them to effective political action. Lenin’s thought and the example of the Russian Revolution empowered Chinese intellectuals, for they provided the basis for a concrete program of political action to propose to the people (Miesner, 1999:17-18).
In late 1919, Chen Duxiu, the leading intellectual of the New Culture Movement, converted to Marxism. In 1920, he and other Chinese Marxists organized small communist groups in the major cities of China. They sought to become a political voice in defense of the needs and interests of peasants and workers and to lead them to new forms of political action. In their conversion to Marxism, they continued to embrace many of the ideas of the disaffected and socially isolated intellectual class from which they emerged, including its anti-imperialist nationalism (Meisner, 1999:11-12, 15, 19-21).
In 1921, Chen and another professor at Peking University, Li Dazhao, established the Chinese Communist Party, with the assistance of a representative of the newly formed Third Communist International. Initially, most of the Chinese Communist Party members were the student followers of Chen and Li. Among the young revolutionary activists was Li Dazhao’s library assistant at Beijing University, Mao Zedong, who would become the principal leader and theoretician of Chinese Marxism (Meisner, 1999:15, 19).
Conditions in China were not favorable for a bourgeois revolution or a proletarian revolution as conceived by Marx. Although a modern Chinese bourgeoisie had emerged in China as a consequence of Western imperialism, it was small and economically weak. It was primarily a commercial and financial bourgeoisie, and not an industrial bourgeoisie. It was dependent on foreign capitalism, in that it functioned as an intermediary between the Chinese market and foreign capitalist enterprises. Similarly, the proletariat was small. Most workers were employed in small shops, and they lacked proletarian class consciousness (Miesner, 1999:5-6)
Therefore, Mao adapted Marx to Chinese conditions, and he conceived the peasantry as central to the socialist revolution. Even though peasants constituted the great majority of the population, they were a politically weak class, unable to formulate their grievances and defend their interests. With their experience largely limited to the local, peasants possessed a provincial outlook. However, the peasantry possessed resentment at the exploitation and abuse of the landlord gentry proprietors. Accordingly, Mao discerned that the peasants possessed a revolutionary spontaneity that could be channeled into effective political action, if they were organized and led by committed activists with revolutionary understanding and consciousness from other social classes (Meisner, 1999:8, 26, 31-33, 37-50).
From 1921 to 1949, the Nationalist Party, first led by Sun Yat-sen and later by Chiang Kai-shek, was the principal competitor of the Chinese Communist Party in attaining the support of the people. The two political forces to some extent shared the same goal of building a strong, modern state that would defend the nation in a hostile international environment dominated by colonialist and imperialist powers. In given political situations, they were allied; and in others, they were in conflict. Their conflict was rooted in the fact that the communists were committed not only to national unity and to national independence, but also to a social transformation that would emancipate the peasants from the landlord class and the workers from the comprador bourgeoisie. During its period of rule of China from 1927 to 1949, the Nationalist Party discredited itself by its collusion with foreign powers; its complicity with a declining and increasingly parasitic landlord gentry; its incapacity to respond to Japanese occupation during World War II; its lack of administrative control over its territory; and its notorious levels of corruption. Meanwhile, the Communists surged in popular support with effective administration of the countryside under its control and with guerrilla resistance to Japanese occupation. These dynamics paved the way for the taking of national political power by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 (Meisner 1999:20-50).
In subsequent posts, we will examine the Chinese Communist Party in power, reflecting on its achievements and its contradictions. For the moment, let us reflect on its taking of power, which it accomplished twenty-eight years after its establishment.
First, we should take note of the decisive role of political events in creating new possibilities for understanding. Reflecting on the popular uprising provoked by the Versailles treaty, many intellectuals experienced what the philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1955) called an intellectual conversion, which occurs when a person seeking to understand discovers previously unasked questions that are relevant to the issue at hand. In a situation of political turmoil, Chinese intellectuals in 1919 turned to previously unknown socialist, Marxist, and Leninist sources for guidance, transforming their understanding.
Secondly, we should emphasize that two middle-aged university professors founded the Chinese Communist Party, and its initial members were mostly young students of the professors. They immediately proceeded to organize the party in various cities, forming small groups. In his writings, Mao taught that all party members should study political theory and history, and they should meet weekly for discussion in groups of three to five persons. In accordance with this commitment to the popular education, Mao and several other party leaders collectively wrote in 1939 a 37-page textbook, The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party, for the education of party members and the people (Mao, 2009:71-72, 111-48, & 174-75).
Thirdly, we should note that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party intelligently adapted Marxism and Leninism to Chinese conditions, avoiding a distortion of their understanding that would have occurred, if they had embraced literally concepts formulated by Marx and Lenin under different conditions. Their adaptation was based on a study and analysis of Chinese historical, economic, political, and social conditions, including the class formations in China and the actual and possible levels of consciousness in each class. They called for a democratic revolution of a new type, required for the colonial and semi-colonial situation (Mao, 2009:111-48).
Fourthly, in spite of their wholesale rejection of Chinese values and institutions, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in no way presented an image of themselves as un-Chinese or as indifferent to Chinese interests. To the contrary, they formulated a nationalist vision, as the basis for the formation of a modern nation-state that could defend Chinese interests against imperialist powers. Their formulation was based on an understanding of the reasons for the decline of China since the early nineteenth century (see Mao, 2009:117-24).
Fifthly, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were nationalist but not ethnocentric. They had studied Western political theories. They had learned from the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions of the West, and they appropriated from them in the formulation of their vision for China.
For intellectuals and activists in the United States, in the context of the relative decline of the USA and the structural crisis of the world-system, are there not lessons to be learned from the relatively rapid taking of power by the Chinese Communist Party? Such lessons for U.S. intellectuals and activists perhaps include the following. (1) We need leaders who do intellectual work, which includes study of revolutions in other lands; and who have the creative insight to adapt the lessons of these experiences to U.S. conditions. In our time and context, such study surely ought to include the national and social revolutions of China and the Third World during the last 100 years. (2) We need to formulate a nationalist project, based on historical and social scientific study of the nation and the world-system, which includes explanation of the sources of the U.S. decline, and which points to a more dignified road for the nation. It is not enough to criticize the nation for its imperialist, exploitative, and oppressive policies; an alternative and more just and democratic road must be formulated. (3) We need to form an alternative political party, which organizes and educates the people with respect to its internationalist nationalist project, and which works on developing strategies for the taking of political power in twenty-five years or so. Organizing protests enables the people to vent their frustrations and to voice their indignation. But it is not enough, and revolutions in other lands demonstrate that more can be done, and that more is being done.
We will continue in subsequent posts with reflections on the Chinese Revolution.
Lonergan, Bernard. 1958. Insight. New York: Philosophical Library.
Mao Zedong. 2009. Collected Writings of Chairman Mao, Volume One: Politics and Tactics. Edited by Shawn Conners, Translated by Foreign Language Press, Peking. El Paso, Texas: El Paso Norte Press, Special Edition Books.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.