Radical Culture and Social Activism: Anarchism in May Fourth Radicalism
If "social change was at the heart of what progressive May Fourth publications advocated and discussed" in 1919, 1 anarchism was the tongue in which this advocacy found its expression. By the eve of the May Fourth Movement, anarchists' vocabulary had already become integral to the language of radicalism in China.
Anarchist popularity, Chinese historians have observed, was a condition of contemporary political circumstances and the social constitution of the Chinese intelligentsia.
Under the conditions of several thousands of years of feudal despotism, especially with the decline of government with constant warlord disaster and repeated but ineffective efforts at governmental reform, it was easy for the people at large to become disgusted with politics. On the other hand, the Chinese intelligentsia was mostly of petit-bourgeois origin; it had a personality that was subjective, superficial, evanescent and impatient. When they began to demand revolution, what best suited their taste was not scientific socialism but empty and highflown utopias, and anarchism which flaunted existing customs. 2
While there is probably a good deal to be said for this evaluation, it essentially misses the point. The liberationist and cosmopolitan thrust of May Fourth thinking (which appears reprehensible from a perspective that would make socialism into a tool of national liberation) was not inimical to "scientific socialism" but a precondition for its propagation. The democratic impulse it generated among Chinese youth extended New Culture aspirations for a just and rational society beyond intellectuals to the population at large, and prepared the intellectual grounds for the diffusion of socialism.
Eric Hobsbawn has observed that anarchism has proved most appealing under circumstances of spontaneous social mobilization. 3 While the social mobilization which accompanied the May Fourth Movement was no doubt responsible for the diffusion of anarchist ideas among Chinese youth, the mobilization was not entirely spontaneous but congealed around the numerous (albeit ideologically diffuse and disparate) organizational cores that had taken shape over the preceding years, especially in China's colleges and uni