The Origins of Chinese Communism

By Arif Dirlik | Go to book overview
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3
The October Revolution and Marxism in China: The Case of Li Dazhao

In his essay "On New Democracy", published in early 1940, Mao Zedong remarked that the May Fourth Movement had been "called forth by the worldwide revolution at the time, by the Russian Revolution and Lenin, it was part of the world revolution of the proletariat." 1 The statement has long shaped Chinese Communist historiography. It has also compelled reorganization of the memories of those who, having come of political age at the time, became the founders of the Communist Party of China.

The problem lies not in Mao's claim that the May Fourth Movement was part of a worldwide wave of revolutions that surged forth from Europe in the aftermath of World War I, which it was, but rather in his suggestion that it was fashioned by Lenin's Marxism, which it was not.

As late as 1921, when the Party was formally established, the intellectuals who participated in its founding knew little about Marxism, and even less about the Marxism of Lenin than about the Marxism of Marx. A few could claim a rudimentary knowledge of Marxist theory, but no more. One recent study suggests that out of the forty-eight identifiable Communists represented by the twelve delegates who met in Shanghai only twenty-one were committed Communists, and they had only a rudimentary knowledge of Marxism. 2 Liu Renjing, a delegate to the first Congress and later Trotskyist, recalls that he became known as "little Marx" at Beida because he gave a lecture on Marxism for the Society for the Study of Marxist Theory (Makesi xueshuo yanjiuhui) sometime in 1921 on the basis of a couple of secondary works on Marxism. Cai Hesen, the Hunanese Marxist, did even better, basing a whole lecture on a dictionary. 3 Li Hanjun, at whose brother's house the Party was founded, and whom Zhang Guotao has described as "the Marxist theorist among us" (he would serve as Party secretary briefly during Chen Duxiu's absence from Shanghai), is said to have opposed the founding on the grounds that Chinese Communists should first find out more about Marxism and Communist politics. 4

Historians have long recognized that Chinese became Communists before they were Marxists or even knew much about Marxism. Yet simultaneous claims have been made that knowledge of or identification with Marxism

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