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The Rise of Modern China Why was Marxism an appealing philosophy to New Culture and May 4th intellectuals?

Byline: Alexander Watts

Before one attempts to analyse the reasons for the adoption of socialist ideology in China, it must be understood that Marxism per se held little, if any, appeal or relevance to these Chinese intellectuals.

Marx's original theories primarily concerned the natural progression of human societies through history, largely immune to interference and manipulation. Philosophical abstractions provided no solution to China's malaise nor did they outline a formula for its economic, political and social progress. It was only following the advent of de facto MarxismLeninism with the October revolution of 1917 in russia, that China's intelligentsia began to take notice.

In order to appreciate the appeal of this novel, more practical manifestation of Marxist theory, it is at first important to understand the objectives and motives of the New Culture intellectuals.

The movement that encompassed them arose from disillusionment with traditional Chinese society following the collapse of the republic founded in 1912 that had sought to reform China's archaic culture. Of these intellectuals, this essay will focus in particular on Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, whose interpretations and analysis of Marxism-Leninism and its application in China had the most lasting impact.

Chief among their objectives was the desire to transform China, not only economically and industrially, but socially, advocating the adoption of global and specifically Western ideals such as democracy and science.

Whilst Marxism-Leninism provided a solution to China's depressed situation, stricken as it was by colonialism and social disunity, and satiated the intelligentsia's obsession with Western standards and ideologies, it was the proof emanating from russia that the Marxist-Leninist doctrine could be used to transform a backward, agrarian economy into a global power that would prove most compelling to the New Culture movement.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of imperialism in China was that it invoked in the minds of the intellectual elite a fascination with Western ideology and philosophy. We must understand that the thinking of Li Dazhou and Chen Duxiu was rooted in Western liberal ideas before they began to envisage Marxism-Leninism as the remedy for China's ills, but it should also be recognised that many facets of their philosophical bases grew from the same modes of thought that had inspired Marx.

The twin foundations of Chen's philosophy were "democracy and science".

Democracy, he believed, afforded freedom to the individual enabling him to pursue his enlightened self-interest, and by grounding this right in law, set free the energies of the individual. In science, on the other hand, 'he saw...a weapon, a corrosive to be used in dissolving traditional society'.

Though fundamentally different, Li's philosophical outlook was at least as conducive to the assimilation of Marxian concepts.

Echoing Emerson and Hegel, his beliefs centred around the principle of duality, a phenomenon not dissimilar to, but far more general than, Marx's dialectical materialism: "There is life and death, prosperity and decline, Yin and Yang, fortune and misfortune, youth and old age, health and debility".

The foundation of this intellectual thought was inherently consonant with Marxism, despite the fact that historical materialism was itself too rigid and unalterable to be considered a useful guiding doctrine in relation to China's circumstances at this point. The question remains, however, as to why these intellectuals eventually proclaimed their commitment to Marxism if their systems of thought were so fundamentally intertwined anyway.

The "science" of Chen was a nebulous and largely redundant concept that was generally seen as a method of comprehending and coming to terms with all worldly phenomena. Where this served no obvious purpose in China's pursuit of social transformation, Marx's dialectical and historical materialism cast Chen's conception of "science" in a new and more applicable light: the science of societal progress. The idea of "democracy" in the minds of New Culture intellectuals is similarly difficult to pin down, characterised chiefly as an "attitude" or "ethos" in the foucaldian vein, a liberal way of thinking and interacting with the world, rather than any sort of political mechanism or system of governance or jurisprudence.

In essence, therefore, Marx's conceptual thought lent clarity and real-world utility to these concepts in the minds of New Culture intellectuals, and made them applicable to the objective of China's social transformation.

However we must recognise that this only establishes that these intellectuals had a fundamental proclivity for adopting Marxist ideas and, as crucial as this predilection is to the rapid growth of communist thought in China, it sheds no light on the actual reasons why such ideas suddenly took hold.

The success of Marxist-Leninist activity in totally revolutionising russia alone was reason enough for Marxism to suddenly become an appealing doctrine to the New Culture intellectuals, but it is crucial to understand what made these fresh Marxist-Leninist theories so pertinent to China. China's depressed situation at this point in time, having been dealt inequitable terms in the Treaty of versailles and consequently still ravaged not only by Western imperialism but rapacious warlords, cannot be ignored.

furthermore, Japan's Twenty-One Demands proved a stinging indictment of China's impotence, jeopardising Chinese freedom, while the domestic economy suffered as home industries shrank. Schwartz urges us not to think of intellectuals like Li and Chen as "leisurely thinkers" but rather 'men deeply engaged in the situation of their native land who had cast aside traditional Chinese solutions and were anxiously looking westward for new solutions'.

By 1919, it was clear that the nationalist revolution of 8 years previous had failed. The Kuomintang had collapsed and Sun Yat-sen's republican and liberal ideas had failed to convince, nor had they permeated the popular consciousness. Chen, in 1919, lamented, 'The false signboard "Chinese republic" has been hanging for eight years now but it is still the old medicine which is being sold'.

Instances of popular disorder and revolt owing to China's depressed economic situation were not recent phenomena either.

Marx himself demonstrates the misery and degradation bred by the first Opium War, provoking sporadic attacks on foreigners and more collective uprisings against the Imperial Government.

As well as agitation inflicted by foreigners, peasants were also driven to revolt as a result of the exploitation of landlords and the semi-feudal elite. So not only was this class of people deprived by European imperial competitors of their means of subsistence, they were tyrannised by rampaging warlords as well.

And when these various factors are taken into account it is easy to understand why the New Culture intellectuals suddenly drew inspiration from Marx's class theory and saw the potential for concerted revolution.

In search of a radical solution to growing problems, most prominent in the minds of intellectuals was the effect of occurrences in russia, and it was this which gave impetus to the growth of Marxist sympathies.

'The Chinese intelligentsia was in search of methods of success', observes Swarup, 'and as such was looking at the institutions of successful societies.' Conventional Marxism, it is interesting to note, received very little attention during the years prior to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

This is somewhat curious when we consider that the Western thought of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, T.H. Huxley, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Darwin, Spencer, rousseau, Montesquieu and Kropotkin were subjected to intense discussion in works such as Chen's Hsin Ch'ingnien review.

The best explanation for the absence of Marxism in pre-1917 intellectual thought in China is found at the centre of Marx's theory of dialectical materialism.

Marx posits that the collapse of capitalism would not occur before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

According to this proclamation, China's immature and predominantly agrarian economy was effectively precluded from the process of dialectical materialism that underlay the industrialised West. Moreover, there was no evidence of anything resembling a peasantry conscious of its "wholeness", uninhibited and free of alienation, to challenge the ruling bourgeoisie and nobility. China fundamentally did not fit into the conventional Marxist model.

However, Lenin's Bolsheviks demonstrated the potentiality for such vast, agrarian and backward nations to rapidly develop, if certain conditions in Marx's model were relaxed.

for instance the Leninist form proposed that the creation of a communist society by the gradual and unassisted coalescence of the subordinate class was impractical and unrealistic; instead the process would be navigated by a vanguard party - a dictatorship of the proletariat. for intellectuals such as Li, it was the power of mass movement demonstrated by russia that was so inspiriting for China: In the course of this world mass movement, all the refuse of history which stand in the path of the new movement - such as emperors, nobles, warlords, bureaucrats, militarism and capitalism - will certainly be destroyed...In meeting this irresistible tide, all of them will one by one be surely destroyed.

Where warlordism after 1916 fragmented China and threw its society into disarray, the proven theories of Marxism-Leninism suggested that a strong vanguard communist party might be able to recover unity and forge such a movement.

Importantly for China, the Bolshevik example also endorsed the universal education of the subordinated class in a process of fostering class awareness, and knowledge of and faith in communism.

In economic terms, where market forces were faltering and insufficient, the state's enormous purchasing power, in theory, enabled economic intervention aimed at stabilising volatile domestic markets and stimulating growth.

Extreme protectionist measures were also an element of Marxism-Leninism, and this would undoubtedly have struck a chord with the widespread resentment in China towards infringing imperialism overrunning domestic industry.

These were precisely the means of progress that New Culture intellectuals believed were central in the drive for China's modernisation, an 'ipso facto alternative to Western capitalist modernity', by way of a social and political revolution that would transform its antiquated culture and social structure.

However, it is difficult to establish just how captivating the messianic message of Marxism-Leninism was for New Culture intellectuals. In the immediate aftermath of the russian revolution, the doctrine of MarxismLeninism seemed the remedy to all of China's ills, 'a universal truth that is applicable anywhere', as Mao would later say.

The distorted claims made by some Marxist historians for the Leninist form as a master science proving not only a means by which to understand a the past but as an unfailing formula for negotiating current social and economic issues, lead one to question its effect on the minds of the intelligentsia, who were desperate for such a phenomenon.

It is also not unreasonable to question whether the appeal of Marxism-Leninism to the intellectuals was entirely selfless, or whether individual aspiration played a part. Schwartz comments on the potential for these intellectual figures to become China's saviours: 'The role it offered to the intelligentsia was a spectacular role of leadership in an atmosphere supercharged with the promise of imminent redemption'.

This glorious role would be to arouse the revolutionary temper of the masses and to lead the organisations thus formed. There is evidence that this aspect of Marxism-Leninism was not lost on the New Culture intellectuals.

Chen certainly recognised these implications when he stated in December 1920 that 'a political revolution must begin with those who have knowledge, with the urban intelligentsia, while the social revolution must begin from the organised producers - the labourers'.

This factor might also explain the comparative lack of appeal for traditional Marxism; it did not allow for the intellectuals to play a major part in the course of history.

In conclusion, the appeal of MarxismLeninism to the New Culture intellectuals arose out of a growing fascination with Western philosophy, economics and ideology. But it was chiefly the dramatic success of the revolution in russia that drew their attention to it.

The realisation that this new doctrine had could address the problems of a disarrayed, disillusioned population spread across a vast nation, and a backward agrarian economy affirmed its relevance to China's situation.

It is difficult to establish whether the potential for individual glory played a significant part in the minds of these intellectuals, but it is reasonable to think that it should not be underestimated considering that many, including Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, became leading members of the CCP. Marxism-Leninism, therefore, was the best solution to the problems that these intellectuals perceived in Chinese society.

It seemed to simultaneously provide an infallible formula for economic transformation, a method of uniting the scattered and disillusioned peasant population and a means of obtaining authority for the intelligentsia themselves. It was this combination of benefits that made the Leninist form of Marxism so appealing.

The writer is undergraduate students of History at the University of Warwick, England.
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Author:Watts, Alexander
Publication:The Diplomatic Insight
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 31, 2013
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