Other Free Encyclopedias » Science Encyclopedia » Science & Philosophy: Macrofauna to Mathematics » Marxism in Asia - Japan, China, Vietnam And Southeast Asia, India, Conclusion, Bibliography

Marxism in Asia - China

chinese revolution maoism marxist

It was primarily in Japan that Chinese students and political exiles learned about Western socialism. In the first decade of the twentieth century, young Chinese intellectuals were attracted to a wide range of socialist ideologies, especially to the anarchist ideas of Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), but also to various forms of "utopian socialism." There was some intellectual interest in Marxism, and fragments of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were translated into Chinese as early as 1907. But while there were many Chinese anarchists, there were no Chinese converts to Marxism prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It is not difficult to understand why Marx struck few responsive chords among Chinese intellectuals who were increasingly attracted to Western socialist doctrines. Marxist theory, in its orthodox form, taught that a well-developed capitalist economy was an essential prerequisite for socialism. But China was an overwhelmingly agrarian land with little modern industry and only a tiny urban working class. What Marxism conveyed to nationalistic Chinese intellectuals, increasingly alienated from traditional culture and attracted to Western socialist visions, was the disheartening message that they could only wait patiently on the political sidelines while capitalist forces of production did their historical work.

Marxism gained its first substantial appeal in China under the twin impact of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and China's May Fourth Movement of 1919. The messianic appeals of the Russian Revolution did not strike the Chinese intellectual world as a "thunderbolt," as Mao Zedong later claimed, but it did arouse sympathetic interest, not least of all because Chinese intellectuals had felt a certain kinship with backward Russia since 1905. It also produced China's first Marxists, including Li Dazhao at Beijing University, soon to be a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Bolshevik Revolution also brought to China the Leninist version of Marxism, which made the doctrine far more relevant to an economically backward land than orthodox Marxian teachings. The Leninist theory of imperialism provided a place for economically backward lands in the world revolutionary process, thus helping to satisfy nationalist and politically activistic impulses. It provided an important revolutionary role for peasants in an overwhelmingly agrarian society. And the concept of the "vanguard" party, which assigned a decisive historical role to the "consciousness" of the intelligentsia, had enormous appeal.

Yet the Russian Revolution and Leninism would have had a much more limited appeal had it not been for the westernizing May Fourth Movement (c. 1915–1921), which burst into political activism shortly after World War I. The cynical betrayal of Chinese interests (in favor of Japanese imperialism) at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 led to widespread disillusionment with Western liberalism, opening the way for Marxian influences. Marxism received its main political expression in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), formally established in 1921, although Marxism also significantly influenced the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and politically independent Chinese scholars.

There was little distinctive about Chinese Marxism in the early history of the CCP (1921–1927). The official ideology was Marxism-Leninism, as interpreted in Moscow and conveyed by the Comintern. In accordance with official ideology, the CCP found its main base in the urban proletariat and pursued a "two-stage" revolutionary policy, with a "bourgeois-democratic" phase preceding the socialist phase. In the first stage, the CCP was the junior partner in a Comintern-arranged tripartite alliance with the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and the Soviet Union. But the mass movement of workers and peasants proved too socially radical for the limited nationalist aims of the alliance, which were confined to national unification and independence. The result was that the Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, turned their Soviet-built army against their Communist allies in 1927, violently crushing the popular movement of workers and peasants. The Communists who survived the carnage fled to the more remote areas of the countryside. The suppression of Communist organizations in the cities in 1927 opened the way for the emergence of "Maoism" as a rural-based Marxian revolutionary strategy.

What came to be celebrated as "The Thought of Mao Zedong" was a doctrine that evolved over two decades of rural revolutionary warfare, culminating in the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Maoism, far from being "orthodox" or "hardline" Marxism as frequently characterized in the West, was marked by its departures from the premises of both original Marxism and Leninism. First, Maoism was based on the belief that the peasantry is the principal revolutionary class, even though lip service was ambiguously paid to the principle of "proletarian leadership." This was logically accompanied by a celebration of the virtues of rural life and a suspicion that cities were the breeding grounds of political conservatism and moral corruption. Maoism, thus, inverted the Marxist (and Leninist) conception of the relationship between town and countryside in the making of modern history.

Maoism not only strayed from Marxism in turning to the countryside but was also profoundly non-Leninist in celebrating the spontaneity of peasant revolt. While Mao appreciated the efficacy of Leninist principles of organization, he never accepted the intellectual basis of Lenin's "vanguard party"—the insistence that the "consciousness" of the intelligentsia had to be imposed on the "spontaneous" movement of the masses.

Mao's unique strategy of revolution was profoundly non-Marxist not only in the belief that the truly revolutionary class was the peasantry, but also in its conception that the revolution would take the form of a military struggle. Rather than the seizure of state power, the Maoist notions of "people's war" and "protracted warfare" envisioned that the expansion of the Red Army would permit the gradual building of nuclei of revolutionary political power in the rural areas. Ultimately, Maoists envisioned that the forces of revolt in the countryside would "surround and overwhelm" the conservative cities.

One of the pervasive features of Maoism was its voluntarist belief that human consciousness was the decisive factor in history. The Maoist maxim that "men are more important than machines" betrayed a striking lack of confidence in the "objective laws" of history proclaimed in Marxist theory, although the latter were ritualistically repeated in official texts. But the actual belief was that socialism was not dependent on any Marxian-defined level of economic development; rather, the historical outcome would be determined by the spiritual qualities of the people and their leaders.

The incorporation of Chinese nationalism into the Chinese version of Marxism enabled Mao to harness popular patriotic sentiments to the Communist cause during the decisive Yenan phase of the revolution, which coincided with the Japanese invasion of China (1937–1945). It made the Chinese Communist Revolution as much a war of national liberation as a social revolution.

Perhaps the most profound Maoist departure from the logic of Marxism was a pervasive populist-type belief in the advantages of backwardness. China's alleged condition of being "poor and blank," Mao believed, was a source of great moral purity and revolutionary energy that foreshadowed China's imminent leap to a socialist utopia. It was a totalistic rejection of the Marxist (and Leninist) insistence that socialism must be based on the material and cultural accomplishments of capitalism.

Such Maoist revisions of the inherited body of Marxist-Leninist theory, which were celebrated as the "Sinification of Marxism," were ideological preconditions for the peasant-based revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949. But they left only tenuous intellectual ties between Maoism and Marxism.

In the end, Maoism sowed the seeds of its own demise. Maoist political methods and values, which continued to bear the birthmarks of its backward rural environment, became increasingly anachronistic in a rapidly industrializing society. It was thus inevitable that Mao's successors would purge Chinese Marxism of its more radical and utopian elements. They first returned to a more orthodox Marxist emphasis on the determining role of economic forces in history. What followed was the ritualization of Maoism, whose vocabulary was retained—but only in the form of nationalistic slogans severed from the actual policies that have generated a capitalist-type economy. The final chapter in the history of Maoism has seen its reduction to a nostalgic pop culture phenomenon—such as the opening of expensive Mao-themed restaurants and the sale (over the Internet) of old Mao badges and other memorabilia of the Cultural Revolution.

Yet if Maoism is exhausted, this is not necessarily the case for other forms of Marxism. The rapid development of capitalism in recent decades has yielded a massive industrial working class and an equally large Lumpenproletariat of migrant laborers. Many of the illegal trade unions that have attempted to speak on behalf of these highly exploited groups have done so in classic Marxist terms. It would be a grand irony of modern history if the greatest challenge to the Communist state appears in the form of a working-class movement proceeding under a Marxist banner.

Marxism in Asia - Vietnam And Southeast Asia [next] [back] Marxism in Asia - Japan

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or