The Origins of Chinese Communism

By Arif Dirlik | Go to book overview

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Perspectives and Perceptions: May Fourth Socialism and the Origins of Communism in China

The early history of Communism in China often reads as the triumphal march of Marx-Leninism into Chinese radical thinking, in which Non-Bolshevik socialisms appear in a lurking, shadowy way. Historians have recognized their presence during these years but usually assigned them to the historical pale, as marginal encumbrances with no significant bearing on the central ideological developments of the time. The ultimate victory in China of a Marxistinspired Communist revolution has blurred in historical memory the important role of these other socialisms both in the origins of Chinese Communism and later in the Chinese revolution.

This blurring of historical memory is readily evident in the treatment historians have accorded anarchism. During the years around 1919, the May Fourth period, anarchism pervaded radical thinking on social and cultural change, and "communism" was identified with "anarcho-communism." Anarchism, moreover, served as "midwife" to Marxism; the majority of those who turned to Bolshevism after 1920 went through an anarchist phase in the course of their radicalization, as they acknowledged freely in later years. Yet students of early Chinese Communism have rarely tried to account for this "anomaly" in the Chinese attraction to Communism. Chinese historians portray anarchism as a residue of pre-Marxist petit-bourgeois intellectual inclinations that was rapidly marginalized when Marxism appeared on the scene. While in recent years there has been a tendency to attribute greater staying power to anarchism, they have continued to treat it as an undesirable intruder, a baneful influence that some could not purge from their minds. With a few exceptions, Western scholars have been even more adamant in treating anarchism in the May Fourth period as an inconsequential historical remnant. The two seminal studies of early Chinese Marxism that have done much to fashion our views of this period, Benjamin Schwartz's Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao and Maurice Meisner's Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism, scarcely mention anarchism. When they do, they merely relegate it to the past as (to paraphase Meisner) an anachronistic impulse that played no dynamic role in May Fourth thinking. 1 Even compelling evi-

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