The Rise of Mod­ern China Why was Marx­ism an ap­peal­ing phi­los­o­phy to New Cul­ture and May 4th in­tel­lec­tu­als?

The Diplomatic Insight - - Contents - Alexan­der Watts


Be­fore one at­tempts to an­a­lyse the rea­sons for the adop­tion of so­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy in China, it must be un­der­stood that Marx­ism per se held lit­tle, if any, ap­peal or rel­e­vance to th­ese Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als. Marx’s orig­i­nal the­o­ries pri­mar­ily con­cerned the nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion of hu­man so­ci­eties through his­tory, largely im­mune to in­ter­fer­ence and ma­nip­u­la­tion. Philo­soph­i­cal ab­strac­tions pro­vided no so­lu­tion to China’s malaise nor did they out­line a for­mula for its eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial progress. It was only fol­low­ing the advent of de facto Marx­is­mLenin­ism with the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917 in Rus­sia, that China’s in­tel­li­gentsia be­gan to take no­tice. In or­der to ap­pre­ci­ate the ap­peal of this novel, more prac­ti­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of un­der­stand the ob­jec­tives and mo­tives of the New Cul­ture in­tel­lec­tu­als. The move­ment that en­com­passed them arose from dis­il­lu­sion­ment with tra­di­tional Chi­nese so­ci­ety fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Repub­lic founded in 1912 that had sought to re­form China’s ar­chaic cul­ture. Of th­ese in­tel­lec­tu­als, this es­say will fo­cus in par­tic­u­lar on Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, whose in­ter­pre­ta­tions and anal­y­sis of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism and its ap­pli­ca­tion in China had the most last­ing im­pact. Chief among their ob­jec­tives was the de­sire to trans­form China, not only eco­nom­i­cally and in­dus­tri­ally, but so­cially, ad­vo­cat­ing the adop­tion ideals such as democ­racy and science. Whilst Marx­ism-Lenin­ism pro­vided a so­lu­tion to China’s de­pressed sit­u­a­tion, stricken as it was by colo­nial­ism and so­cial dis­unity, and sa­ti­ated the in­tel­li­gentsia’s ob­ses­sion with Western stan­dards and ide­olo­gies, it was the proof em­a­nat­ing from Rus­sia that the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist doc­trine could be used to trans­form a back­ward, agrar­ian econ­omy into a global power that would prove most com­pelling to the New Cul­ture move­ment. Per­haps the most en­dur­ing as­pect of im­pe­ri­al­ism in China was that it in­voked in the minds of the in­tel­lec­tual elite a fas­ci­na­tion with Western ide­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy. We must un­der­stand that the think­ing of Li Dazhou and Chen Duxiu was rooted in Western lib­eral ideas be­fore they be­gan to en­vis­age Marx­ism-Lenin­ism as the rem­edy for China’s ills, but it should also be recog­nised that many facets of their philo­soph­i­cal bases grew from the same modes of thought that had in­spired Marx. The twin foun­da­tions of Chen’s phi­los­o­phy were “democ­racy and science”. Democ­racy, he be­lieved, af­forded freedom to the in­di­vid­ual en­abling him to pur­sue his en­light­ened self-in­ter­est, and by ground­ing this right in law, set free the en­er­gies of the in­di­vid­ual. In science, on the other hand, ‘he saw...a weapon, a cor­ro­sive to be used in dis­solv­ing tra­di­tional so­ci­ety’. Though fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent, Li’s philo­soph­i­cal out­look was at least as con­ducive to the as­sim­i­la­tion of Marx­ian con­cepts. Echo­ing Emer­son and Hegel, his be­liefs cen­tred around the prin­ci­ple of du­al­ity, a phe­nom­e­non not dis­sim­i­lar to, but far more gen­eral than, Marx’s di­alec­ti­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism: “There is life and death, pros­per­ity and de­cline, Yin and Yang, for­tune and mis­for­tune, youth and old age, health and de­bil­ity”. The foun­da­tion of this in­tel­lec­tual thought was in­her­ently con­so­nant with Marx­ism, de­spite the fact that his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism was it­self too rigid and un­al­ter­able to be con­sid­ered a use­ful guid­ing doc­trine in re­la­tion to China’s cir­cum­stances at this point. The ques­tion re­mains, how­ever, as to why th­ese in­tel­lec­tu­als even­tu­ally pro­claimed their com­mit­ment to Marx­ism if their sys­tems of thought were so fun­da­men­tally in­ter­twined any­way. The “science” of Chen was a neb­u­lous and largely re­dun­dant con­cept that was gen­er­ally seen as a method of com­pre­hend­ing and com­ing to terms with all worldly phe­nom­ena. Where this served no ob­vi­ous pur­pose in China’s pur­suit of so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, Marx’s di­alec­ti­cal and his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism cast Chen’s con­cep­tion of “science” in a new and more ap­pli­ca­ble light: the science of so­ci­etal progress. The idea of “democ­racy” in the minds of New Cul­ture in­tel­lec­tu­als is sim­i­larly in the Fou­cal­dian vein, a lib­eral way of think­ing and in­ter­act­ing with the world, rather than any sort of po­lit­i­cal mech­a­nism or sys­tem of gov­er­nance or ju­rispru­dence. In essence, there­fore, Marx’s con­cep­tual thought lent clar­ity and real-world util­ity to th­ese con­cepts in the minds of New Cul­ture in­tel­lec­tu­als, and made them ap­pli­ca­ble to the ob­jec­tive of China’s

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