Chinese Marxism

By Smith, S. A. | The China Journal, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Chinese Marxism


Smith, S. A., The China Journal


Chinese Marxism, by Adrian Chan. London; New York: Continuum, 2003. vi + 218 pp. US$125.00/£75.00 (hardcover), US$29.95/£19.99 (paperback).

The book aims to provide a "systematic analysis of the development and nature of the idea of Marxism in China" (p. 1). In fact, it is more a series of essays on certain aspects of that development. Adrian Chan begins with an exegesis of Marx, arguing that Marx believed that a society could commence socialist revolution at any stage of its socio-economic development. It is true that in the 1870s, particularly in his writings on Russia, Marx significantly qualified his assumption that socialist revolutions could occur only in developed capitalist societies. Nevertheless, as Wada Haruki, Teodor Shanin and James White-none of whom is cited-have shown, Marx's writings raise as many questions as they resolve. Did he, for example, believe that Russia was an exceptional case, because of the collectivism inherent in the peasant commune? Did he believe that non-capitalist countries could begin the transition to socialism but not complete it unless revolution broke out in more industrialized countries? Chan skates over these thorny issues, content to make the dubious assertion that "the main criterion for revolution is the presence of exploitation, rather than the existence of a fully fledged capitalist economy" (p. 15).

In the next two chapters, he argues more persuasively that scholars have underestimated the familiarity of Chinese intellectuals with Marxism prior to 1920. This is an important point; yet his claim that the project of New Youth was to "usher in a Marxian culture" (p. 31) seems wide of the mark. Moreover, many of the examples he cites of intellectuals' familiarity with Marxism should be seen as instances of what Arif Dirlik termed "anarcho-communism", the amorphous and hybrid ideology to which most of the radical intelligentsia subscribed in the New Culture era.

In Chapter 4 Chan proffers a sweeping thesis to the effect that, since the pioneering work of Benjamin Schwartz in the 1950s, Western scholars without exception have construed Chinese Communism as simply a variant of Leninism, imported into China by the Comintern. This seems an egregious misreading of the historiography. Schwartz's concern was, surely, to emphasize the local roots of Chinese Marxism, in particularly its intimate connection with nationalism. Recent scholars, such as Tony Saich, Hans van de Ven, Arif Dirlik and Wen-hsin Yeh-whose work Chan again largely ignores-have placed heavy emphasis on the indigenous characteristics of Chinese Communism. Michael Luk, whose study of the ideological origins of Chinese Communism is unjustly slighted, goes so far as to argue that it constituted an "independent and relatively unique system of thought" [M. Y. L. Luk, The Origins of Chinese Bolshevism, Hong Kong, 1990, p. 4]. The dominant historiographical tendency, therefore, has been precisely opposite to that claimed by Chan.

In reality, all of them, including Chan, may be overstating their case. Comintern materials that became available after 1991 show that these scholars underestimated the extent to which the Comintern shaped the CCP, not only financially and organizationally but also ideologically (on this, see my book A Road is Made). Above all, the Comintern steered a reluctant CCP away from a strategy of proletarian revolution towards one of national liberation based on a united front against imperialism and warlordism.

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