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