In his 1989 book “The Origins of Chinese Communism”, Arif Dirlik describes in granular detail a superb history of Chinese radicals in four high stakes pivotal years; between 1917, when China first learned the news of the October Revolution in Russia, to the 1919 May Fourth Movement and its disillusioned aftermath, to the 1920 Comintern visit of Grigori Voitinsky from Moscow, through the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
Dirlik argues that despite official CCP versions of history that minimize anarchism, anarchism within the May Fourth Movement was a midwife to an embryonic understanding of Marxism in China. Learning of the October Revolution, Li Dazhao, from his seat within Beijing University as a leading radical thinker known across China as a leader in the New Culture Movement, immediately leapt into studying Marxism, and following him, all of radical Chinese intelligentsia. Crucial throughout the entire book, the burgeoning radical press played the constant, decisive role media always plays in revolutionary thought. Dirlik’s book would not have been possible without the dozens of radical newspapers that documented Li’s deep dive into Marxism, in real time. Li would become known via this discourse as “China’s first Marxist”.
Anarchism guided Li’s curiosity into Marxism, and through that, all of Chinese radical socialism gained its first understanding of Marxism using anarchist vocabulary. “Mutual aid” is the most common thread of anarchism repeated throughout Dirlik’s book as he takes us through the minds of the key players in their own words, from contemporary press. Bolshevik Communism emerged from a complicated energetic stew of radical debate about various “socialisms” consuming Chinese intelligentsia since the 1911 fall of the Qing Dynasty, ending 2,000 years of dynastic rule. The ensuing ruinous leadership of Yuan Shikai until 1916, reinforced the rapid realization in China that China must change. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” was not a new concept in China in this formative era for Chinese socialism, and Dirlik argues anarchism permeated the era. News from Russia invigorated the debate.
The last straw of imperialist tinder tossed onto the pile was the Versailles Treaty ending World War I handing Shandong province to the Japanese. May 4, 1919, China erupted in protest and labor strikes that would last months, ending in China refusing to sign the treaty. The May Fourth Movement combined patriotism, nationalism, New Culture rejection of Confucian tradition, and the shame of China over constant imperial humiliation, with a sudden unity among labor, peasantry, intelligentsia, women, radicals across Chinese culture and thought. This victory, begun largely in labor organizing and only possible through massive labor strikes, energized Li and his peers, and critically, caught the eye of Bolsheviks in Russia. In the 10 months between May 4th and Grigori Voitinsky’s arrival from the Moscow Comintern in March, 1920, Chinese radicals vigorously explored Marxism using anarchist vocabulary, seeing the October Revolution as an inspiration, if not even a model.
Dirlik argues that Marxism was virtually unknown in China before 1917, while anarchism, or at least its vocabulary via the writings of Peter Kropotkin, sat at the core of the May Fourth Movement. Labor-learning societies, work study groups, mutual aid societies, new village communes, guild socialism, all were covered in the pages of the radical press, which exploded after May Fourth. For a while, the only person writing about Marxism in all of China was Li Dazhao. Dirlik takes care to note that most Chinese would never hear of any of these weighty matters. Li’s public research into Marxism reached only a small group of radical intelligentsia largely centered at Beijing University and in Shanghai, where Chen Duxiu would eventually become the first general secretary of the CCP, a meeting attended by 13 people, including neither Li Dazhao nor Chen Duxiu. Dirlik’s detailed eye is very thorough, and he consistently reminds the reader how small in number the revolutionary intelligentsia indeed was.
Labor’s arrival as a class in China with political power, via May Fourth, is where Marxism found its intellectual home, and where division with anarchism would fester. Dirlik argues that Marx’s vision of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat was seen by Chinese radical intelligentsia as, at best, a “necessary evil”. Grounded in anarchism’s rejection of politics, the state, any coercive authority whatsoever, China’s radical press filled with counter arguments. A growing faith in Marxist revolution among key leaders, and the understanding of labor as a class, a proletariat, and a dictatorship within Marxism, engaged anarchism constantly during the May Fourth Period in the pages of New Youth, Awakening, Weekend Review, Light of Learning, a host of publications. Even this debate was divided by class, with a university funded elite surviving on institutional support for secret radical “societies” on one hand, writing about and attempting to persuade an assumed audience of the teeming Marxist proletariat on the other. The tensions are open as old allies from the May Fourth Movement begin to divide; Chinese backwardness, the peasantry, uneducated and illiterate masses vs. a powerful bourgeoisie intent on oppression, all obviate the need for a strong state at least temporarily, one powerful enough to end capitalism and prevent its return, based on labor. Anarchism abolishes the state now and forever. Where do you go from there?
The New Culture movement which predated May Fourth and gained inspiration from anarchism, focused on revolution of the “society”, rejecting materialistic pursuit, focusing on family, societal, and personal revolution, changes in individuals, while Marxism’s basic assumption was a materialist concept of history; means of production, surplus value, basic concepts in Marxism clashed with basic concepts of anarchism as they met in practice in post May Fourth China. Marxism assumes politics, anarchism rejects it. State coercion vs. voluntary mutual aid. Is man inherently good, or bad? The list goes on. Dirlik argues these differences, on basic assumptions of human nature, show that Chinese understanding of Marxism in this crucial moment was “primitive”, while interest in revolution was urgent. The failure of anarchist experiments post May Fourth had left Chinese radicals disillusioned, seeing in Russian Bolshevism a model for direct action. Marxism became seen as a tool for purging China’s past, now. Let’s deal with abolishing the state later. Dirlik captures the sense of urgency by describing China’s post May Fourth radicals as “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
Enter Grigori Voitinsky. Dirlik could be forgiven for overstating the organizational importance of this one Russian from the Comintern, but he doesn’t, even though he probably should. Absent Voitinsky’s many month stay in China in 1920, there probably would not be a Communist Party of China. Voitinsky was skilled and diplomatic, personable and well-liked, traveled throughout China, and left behind an organization ready to take action. The Communist press began and quickly exploded with debate, some of it specifically over anarchism, the battle lines already drawn. Dirlik argues the organizational model of Bolshevism required Chinese radicals to make an irrevocable decision about how and why they would pursue revolution by either joining the Communist Party, or not. The influence of the Comintern via Voitinsky was not about something the Chinese could not do and had to be taught; Voitinsky only possessed one thing his hosts did not; an agenda, which he accomplished. Dirlik describes the interest of the Comintern in China in 1920 as sending Voitinsky “shopping for radicals.” China was boiling with radicals, who were predisposed to hang on any Bolshevik’s every word. Voitinsky found fertile ground, leaving behind in late 1920 an audience of Chinese radicals now eager and able to make organizational decisions to exclude anyone not committed to Boslhevik revolution. One wonders had the Chinese understanding of Marxism been one year older, would Voitinsky have been so successful? What if Voitinsky had not been such a very nice man?
Dirlik never quite describes why anarchist experiments in China had failed to the point of disillusionment in anarchism. Anarchism midwifed Marxism which begat Bolshevism which led to the first Communist Party congress; the battle Dirlik seeks to document is between Marxist socialist thought and anarchist socialist thought, not practice, so the oversight can be forgiven. However, the question must be asked; if anarchism pre-dated Marxism in China to the point its vocabulary governed the introduction of Marxism, how then could newly arrived Bolshevism have been so obvious an alternative? Dirlik is convincing in his argument that the Comintern played the decisive role, suggesting historical amnesia about anarchism’s role at the birth of Chinese communism is hardly a coincidence.
Tim Russo is author of Ghosts of Plum Run, an ongoing historical fiction series about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Tim's career as an attorney and international relations professional took him to two years living in the former soviet republics, work in Eastern Europe, the West Bank & Gaza, and with the British Labour Party. Tim has had a role in nearly every election cycle in Ohio since 1988, including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Tim ran for local office in Cleveland twice, earned his 1993 JD from Case Western Reserve University, and a 2017 masters in international relations from Cleveland State University where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science in 1989. Currently interested in the intersection between Gramscian cultural hegemony and Gandhian nonviolence, Tim is a lifelong Clevelander.