The Origins of Chinese Communism

By Arif Dirlik | Go to book overview

6
The Language of Class: Marxism in May Fourth Socialism

Were there Marxists in China in 1919? In a vague sense, there were. There were those who were sufficiently drawn to Marxism to translate Marxist works into Chinese and even, toward the end of the year, to apply Marxist ideas to the analysis of Chinese society. Some of them were motivated by intellectual curiosity; others, it would turn out, had more than a passing interest. They found Marxism intellectually significant and sought seriously to propagate it among Chinese intellectuals. During the year following May 1919, this interest found its way into the thinking of most socialists.

Attraction to Marxist explanations, however, did not imply a simultaneous attraction to Marxist political solutions -- to Communism. Chinese intellectuals did not agree, of course, on what political solutions were best in keeping with the spirit of Marxism, which in 1919 they only dimly perceived. Aware by this time of a definite connection between Marxism and the Russian Revolution, they were wary of Marxism to the extent that it was associated with the Revolution. Many of those who were interested in Marxism in 1919, and did the most to propagate it, refused to join the Communist movement as it emerged in 1920. Some of them turned against Marxism when faced with the prospect of Communism in China, others used Marxism to argue against Communism. Marxism and Communism were distinguished in the socialism of May Fourth intellectuals.

In this particular sense, Marxism shared a basic feature with anarchism: a wide diffusion of its vocabulary in the thinking of radical intellectuals who otherwise had no systematic commitment to its solutions. Marx's name and Marxist concepts appeared with increasing frequency in radical writing, Marxist ideas became issues of debate, and there was a growing feeling that the ideological tradition originated by Marx offered the best way to understand the problems of Chinese society. "Class" and "class conflict" were on the lips of many -- as common, or almost as common, as "mutual aid" and "laborism," though without the positive connotations of the latter.

Yet there was also a fundamental difference in the receptions given to these two ideologies. Unlike with anarchism, there was no organized group or publication before 1920 devoted to the systematic propagation of Marxist

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